The growing diversity of Duke's a cappella scene

The men's a cappella group the Pitchforks, pictured in 2011, recently brought in a new class of singers.
The men's a cappella group the Pitchforks, pictured in 2011, recently brought in a new class of singers.

In the past, the term “a cappella” referred to Jewish or Christian choral music sung without accompanying musical instruments. Traditionally, most a cappella performances took place in European Christian churches. Due to the nature of the performances, white male singers tended to dominate most a cappella groups, including those at Duke. However, Duke’s a cappella groups are challenging this history of whitewashing, as evidenced by the racial diversity of the various groups’ newly added members. 

This year, the Pitchforks, the oldest all male a cappella group at Duke, experienced the highest racial diversity of its new members in its 38 years of history.

“It’s fairly obvious that all-male a cappella has historically been a predominantly white art,” said junior and Pitchforks president J.J. Moncus. “And we wanted to attract voices of all kind both literally and figuratively, because we miss out on a lot of really talented people by not trying our best to appeal to a diverse scene.”

Moncus had conversations with various members of the Duke community to appeal to diverse applicants. The applicant pool the group received this year was more diverse than others in the recent history of Duke a cappella, and the members who were a best fit for the group turned out to be non-white.

Although the older members of Speak of the Devil, another male a cappella group, did not try anything different to recruit more diverse members, the six new members of the group were more racially diverse than those of last year.

“We tried to get the best singers and the best fits personality-wise for the group. And this year, there just happened to be more diversity in freshmen and sophomores as well,” Junior Evan Cater, president of Speak of the Devil, said.

New members of the a cappella groups were diverse not only in their identified races, but also in their interests, backgrounds and musical experiences.

Andrew Zheng, a first-year from Virginia, was one of the few Pitchforks members whose voices were fit for multiple voice types, including tenor and baritone. Zheng has been singing since he was in fourth grade, mainly through choir and musical theater shows. Similarly, first-year Daniel Sprague, a member of Speak of the Devil, who identified as half Japanese, had nine years of training in viola and had also been a member of his church choir.

Not all new members in the groups were freshmen. Sophomore Kiran Nagar, who originally hails from Durham, attended Dartmouth College before transferring to Duke this year. Nagar sang in the chorus in middle school and high school and in an a cappella group for three years in high school. At Dartmouth, he was a part of an a cappella group as well. Despite any differences in background, all members went through equally rigorous audition processes composed of three rounds.

In the first two rounds, the prospective members had to perform pieces ranging from basic scales and solo pieces they chose to songs they practiced with original members. For the last round, the older members secretly set up a show in which the applicants had to sing the songs they learned through an hour-long rehearsal under the Blackwell arch to test how the prospective members performed under pressure.

In terms of what criteria was used to accept new singers, the current members appreciated diverse backgrounds but valued musical contribution and individual personalities more than anything else.

“Just because what we are bringing into the Pitchforks is our musical ability [and] our voices, for me it doesn’t really matter who the voice is coming out of,” Nagar said.

“I don’t really think about race of the people in the group,” Cater echoed. “I would say that the thing that contribute to my experience [in Speak of the Devil] is the personalities.”

However, the a cappella group, especially with its increased diversity, influenced the members’ experiences in the groups in different ways.

“Being president of the Pitchforks was the best decision I had ever made in college, and the diversity of the group is just a cherry on top of the fantastic dessert with the music and the great camaraderie of everyone,” Moncus said.

Sprague valued that the members of Speak of the Devil were trained in different types of music based on their ethnic or cultural backgrounds. He said such diversity brought in a lot of different flavors to the music the group was performing.  

With the increased diversity in their members, the a cappella groups are facing a new chapter in their history.


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