Music can sneak into your life in unpredictable ways, whether you create music or simply experience it from the sidelines. Songs are often deeply associated with certain moments in our lives, and when one unexpectedly reappears on shuffle on a morning run or plays in the background of a TV show, we inevitably find ourselves replaying those moments in our minds. I can guarantee that almost every one of us has a visceral reaction when “Remix to Ignition” or “Wannabe” booms through the stereo. Right now you’re probably flashing back to a particularly fond memory of bopping around in the car or dancing on a table surrounded by equally pumped individuals who were reveling in the nostalgia and novelty of two of our favorite throwbacks.
As a member of the Georgetown Phantoms, the oldest co-ed a cappella group on campus, I have seen and experienced firsthand the profound link between music and memories, which especially comes out in the music creation process. A cappella is not just improvisation and games. It is a meticulous, sometimes exhausting, science. Groups here not only perform covers of songs but reinvent them. We dissect them based on vocal parts and reconstruct our own versions from the existing fragments and from nuggets of our collective imaginations.
As one of the two groups that host the D.C. A Cappella Festival, affectionately referred to as DCAF, we arrange six new songs for the two-weekend extravaganza and then add three more for the Cherry Tree Massacre, another performance hosted by The Georgetown Chimes in the spring.
We spend weeks and weeks picking the songs, arranging them painstakingly in an electronic composing software, rehearsing them ad nauseum and auditioning for solos. Another hurdle in the process is that the Georgetown Phantoms decide everything by unanimous vote. We come to a full group agreement on all songs and soloist decisions. Once a song is in our repertoire, it stays there, and once we pick a soloist, he sings that song until he graduates. As you can imagine, people build incredible attachments to the songs we choose, arrange, perform and solo. When you spend a full hour as a group on a 30-second portion of a song trying to get the dynamics exactly right, trying to force those pesky tenors to blend into the background, you simultaneously fall in love with and get incredibly sick of a song.
I can’t hear the song “Smiling Face” by James Taylor without dissolving into peals of highly inappropriate giggles because of something that happened on our winter 2012 tour in Colorado and I fall silent and contemplative every time I hear the song “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz. I have a fierce connection to one of my solos, “Domino” by Jessie J. The song may be just a throwaway vapid pop song to most, but in my three years at Georgetown, I have sung it at the White House, on my 21st birthday for the full Georgetown Day audience and at a private party in Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker’s backyard for 10 of the most influential women in America. “Blush” by Plumb, a random and obscure song, is one of the Phantoms most signature and storied tunes. It marks some of the most important and impactful moments of my Georgetown career. I cannot listen to the song “Madness” by Muse anymore because I get horrible flashbacks of sitting alone at a piano at 3 a.m. trying to figure out where the heck one chord transition comes from, racking up my iTunes play count to 242. All of the time we spend perfecting these songs may seem trivial for just a YouTube video or a performance for a couple hundred people, but the moment the music director cuts off that last note in Gaston Hall the wave of accomplishment and warmth that runs through us is beyond worth it.
The repertoire of the Georgetown Phantoms has become the soundtrack to my Hoya experience, for better or for worse. I no longer sing the lyrics to those songs but rather a mix of “oohs,” “dim doos” and “zim za za zims” that somehow follow the piano line in the background. That’s what I love about a cappella. It allows you to take a step back and become a part of something with intricate moving parts to create a larger picture. It allows you to both zoom in and out of your favorite songs until they are entirely your own. It has changed the way I look at music, and for all of us lucky enough to be a part of it, it’s yet another thing we can unanimously agree upon.
Lindsay Lee is a senior in the College. Life in Art appears every other Friday from a new authors.
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