I’ve been dragging my feet about writing this post for a while now. I guess it’s finally time.
A little over 5 years ago, I started college at the University of Missouri. When I stepped onto that campus, I was a diehard band kid. I had spent the past 8 years of my life playing brass instruments, and had no intention of stopping. I had every intention of playing in the marching band there. To this day, I still tell people that I picked Mizzou based on the quality of the football team, just so that it was worth playing in the marching band for them. I was a choir kid for a couple years in high school. It was fun, but it wasn’t quite my thing. I had quit by the end of sophomore year. Of course, as a senior at this point, Glee was just becoming a big TV show, and therefore, I was getting kinda nostalgic. I remember texting a friend wishing I could be in a group kinda like that. Her response was “There is a group like that, Gold Rush (the show choir I was in for two years before deciding I didn’t want to do it anymore). However, I knew I didn’t want show choir. I wanted the pop choir, but not the show choir.
However, due to a new school (year), I gave up the choir daydreams and focused on band again. It was full of new music, new people, and new challenges. However, it wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Of course, the signs were all there, I just couldn’t see them. In the trumpet section (where I dutifully played my part), the proper introduction was “Hi, I’m *insert name here*, and I’m better than you”. Of course, there were also the people who loved to party, drink heavily, maybe indulge in some conscious-altering substances, but I wasn’t one of them. I was the outsider. I hung around with them because I didn’t really have other people. No real friends on the dorm floor yet (save for one), and a roommate I was just getting to know (while also getting to know his girlfriend). The other trumpet players were the only real “friends” I had, despite the fact that I would spend most nights sitting in my dorm room, at my desk, just messing around on my computer.
Now, I could go on for days about my roommate. He and I have stayed in touch, and we’re still friends, which actually surprises me a little. He and I got along well, the only problem was that he wasn’t EXACTLY what you would consider a tidy individual. On the contrary, his possessions littered our floor so heavily that I had little room to walk. The only places I could fit in my room were my desk and my bed, the top bunk. On top of that, he had a budding relationship with his then girlfriend. I grew to be fond of this girl, mostly because I could give in to my more traditionally feminine side and watch “chick flicks” or have kinda lighter talk, because everything was decided in 2-1 votes. Of course, I was the 1 every once in a while, but that’s what happens when your roommate is dating a girl that virtually lives with you (I wasn’t exactly happy about it, but that’s another story)
By probably about October, I was really starting to give up. I didn’t really have anyone. I dated a girl for a few weeks. Of course, I found out later that the floor effectively set me up with her such that they wouldn’t have to deal with her, but that’s again another story for another time. I had maybe a handful of friends, and about one who I would actually talk to frequently (Coincidentally, the one that told me that the floor set me up with the aforementioned girl I dated.). During this month, I actually discovered that an old acquaintance from high school show choir went to another school in Columbia. We went out to dinner one night. That was quite possibly the most calm I had ever been since getting to Columbia. I needed a friend. Even though I never saw her again (because our paths never directly crossed again), it was great to have that friend who appreciated me for who I was. Then, my parents came into town a few weeks later. Of course, the defining moment of their trip was the one moment I allowed myself to break down into tears. And it wasn’t over something huge. My mom had just brought me some of the old comics from the weekly newspaper. It’s a weird feeling when an act of kindness comes seemingly out of nowhere, but it made me start wanting to try finding friends like that. Granted, it became easier because football season and I didn’t have to hang out with marching band people as much. I started getting to know my floor. The girls on the other end of the floor were quite nice, including my friend Whitney (same friend as before). These friends were just so much better, because I felt like laughing at their jokes. I understood them.
However, despite these new friends, I still felt a bit empty.
Then, around Christmas time, one of the girls on the floor (Sidney, who I will forever be grateful for this) sent me something on Facebook that changed my life: the event page for Add9 auditions.
Now, I should probably preface this a bit. I had thought about a cappella before, if only for a moment. I originally heard about it from my sister when she heard a group at show choir camp, and brought back one of their cd’s. I thought it woudl be fun to do. I got a flyer for Mizzou Forte, the co-ed group on campus. I spent maybe a week prepping, only to do what I always do with an audition – change my mind the night before about what to audition with. I even did what I then thought to be good vocal percussion. Unfortunately, that was met with an email saying “we hope to see you at our next audition”. Occasionally, I would start looking up Mizzou Forte to figure out out to be better. I would watch vocal percussionistson YouTube sometimes to learn better tricks. I planned on making it into Mizzou Forte the next year. However, for Add9, I didn’t want to be another email, either. After hearing about auditions, I spent the next two weeks preparing. I picked the perfect song for me (“King of Anything” by Sara Bareilles – in her octave), and watched tons of videos of beatboxers. I created a plan for about 90 seconds of beatboxing. I was ready for them.
Walking across campus in that cold January air, I also rubbed the nose of the famous statue sitting outside Jesse Hall “guaranteed” to give an A to all that rub the nose. I never rubbed that nose another time while at Mizzou.
I still remember walking into that audition. I talked to a couple guys before waking in. The face I really remember was a guy named Jim. I liked him. He was funny. However, walking into that room, I was all alone. And when you stand all of about 5’7″, when you stand in front of a panel of Add9 members and a little nervous, you feel more of about 2 feet tall. In that moment, I don’t think my solo was nearly as good as I ever wanted it to be (To any of those that were in that room, please never tell me whether or not it was good. I never want to know.). However, in those final moments of auditioning, I piped up, and said something I’m almost surprised I managed to say: “I can do vocal percussion. Do you want to hear it?”.
I could tell you there were a few smiles from guys when they heard me, but it was all a blur. I was proud of that moment more than anything, more than the parlor trick of having a huge high range that would only work in men’s a cappella, being able to sightread and blend on the fly. However, none of those other skills mattered. About an hour and a half later, I got a phone call, saying “we want to hear you again, primarily as a vocal percussionist”. I sprinted down the other end of the hall to tell Sidney. For the first moment since coming to college, I felt like I had won, if only for a moment. Two days later, on the day of the callback, I got an email that was a precursor to the outcome. They already had plans for us. The callback was more formality than decision, but a decision nonetheless. That guy Jim I remembered was in the new group of guys, including a guy named Gabe. Remember him, he’s incredibly important to this story.
By the end of those first few weeks, I had new friends. However, these friends were different. They decided they wanted me. And by the same regard, I decided I wanted them.
Then, on top of these new friends, there was a cherry on top. I found out there was a women’s group: The Naturelles. And every Thursday, everyone from Add9 and the Naturelles that could would go to the Heidelberg downtown for buy-one-get-one-free appetizers and libations, if old enough. The nights Add9 rehearsed were my favorite nights. I would almost run to rehearsal. These guys let me try vocal percussion things. The first two songs we learned were Hallelujah (which I had ties to through stories not related to Mizzou or Add9), and Bad Romance. For my first performance with them, we sang to probably a thousand or more students packed into Jesse Auditorium for a different event. I stood off to the side of the group, percussing into a standing microphone, terrified to move for fear of lost sound while the other guys danced and sang. The crowd loved us. I loved what we were doing. We would perform at gigs later, and I still couldn’t figure out a microphone. We recorded an album in my first month with the group. The quality of the recording was terrible, but it was fun. They treated me like a kid brother. However, they respected my talent. And through them, I got exponentially better at the craft.
Of course, the social interaction was also tremendous. I loved those nights at the Berg. I went every week. Shannon and I were “Drinking buddies”. (Andrew) Lang looked out for me. Laura was the other vocal percussionist, and we loved it. Kara and I laughed that she could almost sing lower than I could and I almost had her beat on the upper end. And then there was Hannah. I had a rather ridiculously large crush on her, and I was fairly certain she kinda like me, but that was never confirmed. That was partially my reason for hanging out with the Naturelles back then, and by partially, I mean a rather large reason. Of course, that’s all the past, but reasons for friendships are funny. Don’t tell the Naturelles.
And then Gabe gave me something that changed my life forever: he gave me 5 of the “Best of College A Cappella” (BOCA) albums. The first time I heard those songs was standing in his dorm room. They were like nothing I had ever heard. I thought Add9 was good. We weren’t even close to good. The things I heard pushed the boundaries of what I thought the human voice could do. I thought performing Toxic in a sorority house to squealing sorority girls was as good as it got. These groups were doing Paramore, the Black Eyed Peas, and even Earth, Wind, and Fire. The arrangements were intricate, but possible. I spent that summer swearing that Add9 could be that good. I must have listened to those albums a hundred times each. I still love most of those tracks, and I rediscover one every once in a while. ‘
I had thought about leaving Mizzou after my first semester. After one month with Add9, I never planned on leaving again.
Over the next couple years, I learned of one more thing about the a cappella world: The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) tournament. Gabe knew of these things. He showed me little chunks. I watched everything I could. Remember how I said I wanted choir in my life? This was what I was looking for. It wasn’t the dancing, it was the music. It was taking a handful of people and performing a modern song. To me, it was beautiful.
The next year, things began to change. The group tried competing for the first time. However, through losing members, the group was struggling to just stay afloat. I had tried my hand at arranging over the summer between freshman and sophomore years. I wrote (I think) 3 songs. The one I was most proud of was a mash-up of “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO and “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” by Coldplay. I still believe that it might be alright in a studio. However, due to so many personnel changes, that mash-up saw the light of day for all of 15 minutes. I gave up hope writing for a long while. No arrangements felt good enough to me. I had about 2 more over the next couple years. They stayed on my computer. However, through Gabe’s perseverance and sheer determination, we competed that year. Choreography was learned in a day. Two of the songs were recycled from the year previous. We learned one new song: “Through the Trees” by Low Shoulder, a fictional band from the Movie “Jennifer’s Body”. Gabe wrote it and performed it with his high school group (which was actually directed by the founder of Add9, I later found out). By my best estimate, we took 6th out of 9 groups competing at our first competition. However, the distance between us and 5th place was probably a fairly large chunk. However, we were still better than Mizzou Forte (if only slightly), but the Naturelles took a nosedive. We were the best at Mizzou, but that wasn’t a title to be proud of. We had a ways to go.
The next year, we recorded another album. Gabe really pushed for it. It was a wild experience. Gabe became a bit tyrannical, it felt. We did a lot of his decisions. However, it got stuff done. We learned tons of new music. Even though we were learning a song in the studio before we recorded it, there were still moments we were proud of. Through the Trees, even though we were starting to get sick of it, sounded amazing. It’s still one of my favorite recordings. It’s not good enough for a BOCA album, but I still get excited when I hear the first seconds. During the bridge, I still want to cheer along. Even though that year, we did worse at ICCA, taking 7th out of 8 (Even though we eternally argue 6th), we had a moment to be proud of. However, I did win a vocal percussion battle at that competition, so I had 2 moments, because I’m greedy like that.
At the end of that year, Gabe graduated. It felt weird to watch him go. I was tired of the direction he put us in, but I realized something: He gave us a direction. Even if we never got any credit for anything, we had shown improvement. Thanks to Gabe, we held two concerts in one school year. Only about 3 songs were repeated between the concerts. I was convinced that 8 songs a year was the norm. Gabe convinced us that 15 was possible, and he was right. He pushed us forward in a way that nobody else could. And throughout this time, I was learning. I learned every facet of the a cappella world that I could. He convinced me to begin this blog.
By the end of that year, I was named treasurer of the group for the upcoming year. Coming into my senior year, I was an officer of the group.
That year, we had a new director, Ben. Ben had been with us for 2 years by this point, and he pushed us to be better. I say he taught a cappella like a football coach. He almost forced us to be better. We also had a member named Mike who was a music major that would occasionally arrange for us. We were learning harder music now. We competed again. This time, we placed (Speculatively) 5th out of 8. However, we were allowed just the littlest argument about this placing, as we went first, which is arguably the worst slot to go in for your score, but that’s an argument I can make at a later date. The most important thing of this year was not the music. It was the overall improvement of the group. For the first time, we were something. Sure, we weren’t perfect, but we had music that was better, choreography that was actually good choreographer (because Andrew (O’Haro, this time) stepped up Majorly and became a tremendous choreographer), and we did all this prep in two weeks.
Alongside this, however, was not the music. The big thing I took away from this year was Naturelles. Now, the Naturelles had an interesting history over the past few years. They were solid my freshman year. However, due to losing most of the key members that May, they had to start rebuilding the next year. Of course, in rebuilding years, everyone has to be on board with it all. Once people start jumping ship, everybody panics. By the end of my sophmore year, the group almost ceased to exist. The start of my junior year, they had 3 members. 3. By the end of auditions my junior year, they had 21 members. By my senior year, they had settled down, and were at a consistent 14-15. However, this consistency they now had meant a lot for the program. I was able to start a group friendship with them again. Add9 and the Naturelles started becoming friends again. We held an ICCA prep concert that year. Granted, they were still learning choreography because they had another week, while Add9 had to be ready to go for competition the next day, but both groups performed together. We did our last concert of the year together. The closing song was sung by both groups together. This had happened once before, but it was better now. It’s lovingly referred to as the “Natural Addition”. It’s a terrible name, but we love it.
And the last thing I took away from this was a friendship. Her name is India. She was/ still is in the Naturelles. We met during my sophomore year, when both groups had a gig. She survived the train wreck year (just barely). However, we slowly become friends. Very good friends. As I’m sure she knows by now, I had a pretty large crush on her, too (I kinda have a thing for dating the Naturelles, but never succeeding.). Of course, the one time I actually had the perfect moment to ask her on a date, I had allergies and the most splitting headache, and I could barely think straight. As luck should have it, she later started going on a couple dates with another guy in Add9, I found out she’s just slightly crazy, and now we’re eternally best friends (Love you, India.) Why do I need to bring her up? Because obviously, she’s important. And by the end of this story, she’s tremendously important.
The end of senior year, going into my super senior year (because I added too many classes, not because I failed any), I was named president of the group. Also important to note is that David, who had just finished his freshman year, became director.
My last year of Add9, I was equal parts anxious and terrified. I was also batting around the idea of grad school. One of the front runners was staying at Mizzou. However, let’s put this on the back burner for a bit.
This year, we tried something new: We had everybody sit in a room and just shout out songs we wanted to do. Originally, this was not how we did music selection. Selection was done by officers and only officers. I had an idea for the “perfect” ICCA set. Apparently, I was wrong about 2 of the songs. However, the music we had decided wasn’t what I had expected. I liked the songs, but I wasn’t sure they were what I wanted. We had picked a song by Twenty-One Pilots called “Car Radio”. I knew it would become the ICCA closer, but I didn’t know how. Remember how I never arranged? That began to change. We lost Mike. He left the group. Members had to pick up the slack and write. I had to as well, or hope somebody else would.
That year, we also held a 10-year anniversary concert, celebrating that Add9 was now 10 years old. I got to see many of the old faces (Gabe, Lang), and even meet the founders of Add9. I was planning most of this shindig. However, throughout this planning, I had an idea:
I knew how to arrange Car Radio.
It wasn’t conventional. I wanted to make the sound like an actual car radio. I used whispers as radio static. I took the first two songs, Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” and the Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” and quoted them in the bridge. The song was going to culminate in almost utter chord chaos. In my head, it was beautiful. I was on my way to a party, but texted David “I’m going to arrange Car Radio”. He didn’t question.
In November, I got to watch my masterpiece come alive. Slowly but surely, that fear I had of arranging was slowly starting to go away. Hearing your ideas come to life is a wild experience. It’s terror and excitement. It’s pure audio adrenaline. And I wasn’t the only one that experienced this. Steve had his first arrangement, “If I Die Young” come to life 2 months later. Add9 made it possible. For the first time ever, I believed that Add9 had a shot. And not a “perfect scenario” shot. I believed that we legitimately had a chance to place at competition. I wanted my shot at semifinals, and I believed we had it. O’Haro’s choreography was golden. Even though we lost a member at the start of the semester, nobody wanted to give up. Nobody wanted to let the group down.
We held a send-off concert with but the Naturelles and Mizzou Forte. All three groups were competing at the same competition. Mizzou Forte had a lot of absences for that performance, but they still came in uniform. The Naturelles came ready to go. They went out for the fun of it. However, we were playing for keeps. You could feel it in how we performed. When the solo for “Car Radio” is simply screaming “and now I just sit in silence”, you can’t help but get chills. It’s in the last minute of performance, and it makes the first 10 even better.
We went to competition the next week. Our sound check was dismal. we couldn’t hear each other. Dan dropped a microphone. Chords didn’t lock. We were nervous. Of course, it didn’t help that we had just driven through a snow storm to get there. However, we had one benefit that we couldn’t predict – I drew our competition order. Last. After going first the year before, we were going last.
After we watched the first half of the concert, we warmed up. We were nervous, but excited. Somewhere between sound check and intermission, everybody decided they wanted to be there. We warmed up. We were excited. The fire was back.
And then Fansh blew the wrong pitch on the pitch pipe. Twice.
The first note of the entire set wasn’t a chord. It was Steve singing one note. Therefore, when the pitch he is given is wrong. It means that we were going to sing a different key. I panicked. However, it was for all of 20 seconds. Through sheer force of will, we stayed in that key. It sounded better. The stage came alive. We heard ourselves. Nobody was backing down. I had chills. Then came a ballad. Then came the adrenaline.
While performing Car Radio, I forgot I was on a stage. It felt like we were in the same practice room as the night we discovered how awesome the chords were. Every group member was in sync. It was pure electricity in our veins. We were tired from driving in snow, a bad sound check, and a long day, but it didn’t matter. In those final 4 minutes, we left it on that stage.
The roar at the end of the set was deafening. The crowd was small, but they had braved the snow to see the competition, and we gave them that. At awards time, I was ready to hear our name. We deserved it.
Outstanding Soloist: A Member of the Hibernotes
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: a Member of the Beartones
Outstanding Choreography: A Cub Bella
Outstanding Arrangement: The Beartones
At this point, I wasn’t ready to give up. Not yet. Anything could happen.
Third Place: The Hibernotes
“In Second place, and advancing to semifinals. From the University of Missouri”
That was the second longest moment of my life. I grabbed India’s hand. She and I were standing right next to each other. Everyone was excited. We all believed that Add9 had made it to semifinals. Our dream had been realized.
That was the longest moment of my life. After spending 4 1/2 years building towards a goal, I watched that goal go to my best friends. The Beartones won the competition, but I knew that was coming. They were just too good. I thought we had a shot at them, but apparently, I was wrong.
You know it’s bad when the group that makes it to semifinals looks you dead in the eye and says “you were robbed”. Upon walking back to our designated room, the host group cheered for us. They thought we deserved to win. And then I saw our judges sheet.
It wasn’t perfect, but I saw things both great and terrible. On one judge’s sheet, I saw a score of 134. They awarded us second place. They gave us perfect choreography. The comments said “Your music is all-inclusive. It’s about a story. Thank you”. The next judge gave us a 76, and the phrase “the music is good, but I’m just not feeling it”. In normal competition, the highest and lowest scores would be thrown out. Therefore, both of these scores would have most likely gone away, and the middle three would be our score. However, thanks to a snow storm, there were only 3 judges. There were no safety nets. While it would have required one judge to have a change of heart of 20-30 points, it meant we did have a shot at placing under normal circumstances. Our score was 303, which is normally good enough for at least 4th place, and sometimes higher. It was the highest Add9 had ever scored. However, it was nothing. No superlatives. No placement. Not even fourth place. We placed fifth. Thanks to a snowstorm and a bold set choice, we placed fifth. Were there things we could have done to make it better? Yes, but not at that point in time. Not after seeing a 58-point flux where there is traditionally a 20-30 point (approx.) flux.
I left the room after that, went to a distant corner, and cried.
Of course, after that, we went to the after party, then home the next day. However, I just felt empty. I still feel empty thinking about that moment on the stage. I watched my best friends get the award I felt was mine. Gabe texted me to send his condolences. It took me three days to get over it. Then, I did the only thing I had left to do: I started helping the Naturelles. I found a way out to watch them compete by borrowing a friend’s car. I sat near the very back row and screamed my head off. They didn’t do very well at semifinals, but they’re the first group from Mizzou to make it there, and I’m sure they won’t be the last.
I then went back to arranging. I arranged two more songs that semester: “Manhattan” by Sara Bareilles, and “Rather Be” by Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne. To the listeners, they’re just a ballad and an uptempo fun song. To me, they were my goodbyes. I had thought about grad school, but I gave up on that due to being burnt out and getting a good job offer. Manhattan was my goodbye to the group, saying “you guys need to be here, even if I can’t”. India sat in the front row, and I had to look away from her just so I wouldn’t cry. Rather Be said “No matter where I am, I’ll always want to be here”. Rather Be was performed with a trio of soloists and a choir of 25. Add9 and the Naturelles sang it together, and the 3 graduating seniors (myself included), sang the solo. It’s the only solo I ever had.
This leads me to the last month or so. Add9 is still in talks of recording. I want to see Car Radio preserved for all eternity, even if I have to pay for it entirely myself. I had always wondered why Gabe did the things he did as president of the group, and then I found out why, because I was doing the same thing: Seniors always want to exceed and preserve. Under me, Add9 did the best they had ever done. However, it wasn’t because of me. I pushed them in the same way Gabe did. We push to make the group better. We learn more music, we learn harder music. We force ourselves to become the group we want to be. And then, when we get there, we use a recording studio to hit the save button and keep that pinnacle we thought we reached. Add9 isn’t at a pinnacle yet. I was never the best singer. Anyone can learn how to do vocal percussion. All I did was push the boundary to which we could dream.
This leads me to a question David asked me. He found it on reddit, of all places. Someone was asking about how to start making a group better and competition worthy. I gave him this: just find your group, and let it happen. If you guys want the music to come alive, it will. We did a version of “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. David arranged it. It was one of the most fun songs I’ve ever sung with Add9. It came alive. We wanted it to. All it takes is one dreamer, and a group that doesn’t want to see anybody left out in the cold. Once the group finds its sound, they can do whatever they want. Don’t expect a perfect performance the first time you get there. However, when you give that performance that will turn heads, you know it.
Where does that leave me now? I’m now in Madison, Wisconsin. I now work for a company named Epic Systems. They do all of the software in hospitals. Of course, it’s not all work. The company has their own a cappella group, named the Ambulatones (I know, I’m not huge on the name, but I didn’t get a say). I reached out to them a few months ago, and they were almost waiting for me when I got there. I’ve almost finished an arrangement for them (“Breathe Again” by Sara Bareilles – I really love her music). It’s different. On the one hand, I miss the group(s) I was once a part of (even though they haven’t even had rehearsals without me yet), but this is where I belong for now. I think I’m going to be a bit more active on this blog (which, really isn’t that hard, because I’ve been really slacking). I’m still formulating ideas to arrange for Add9 and the Naturelles as parting gifts. Of course, anything is possible. I may return to Missouri yet. I don’t think I’m ready to settle for 5th place.
Finally, So many shout outs to people. There were many stories omitted, an entire group (Hitt Street Harmony) neglected, and people that deserve credit that I haven’t given it before without this literally becoming a novella. To people like Leah – who put up with my many questions, Jason – the only nerd of my caliber I’ve found, Kenny – For helping me establish an unspoken rivalry with the Beartones (it’s there, give it time), Chris – For giving me that initial phone call. Mack – The President of the Naturelles that just graduated with me, Erin – The other Mizzou A Cappella graduated senior. Mizzou Forte, The Naturelles, and Add9. You guys are awesome.