Yale's Globetrotting A Cappella Group The Spizzwinks Honors Its Hometown Pledge

Five decades before the Beatles and Stones, Yale University in New Haven gave us the Whiffenpoofs and the Spizzwinks — two iconic, all-male singing groups that continue to perform.

"We were like the joking spoof of [the Whiffenpoofs]," says Spizzwinks member and business manager Nick Massoud, a Yale junior from Westport. "When you think of the troupe of kind of a goofy men's a cappella group, we are the original goofy men's a cappella group. That's kind of where we fit."

On Oct. 20 and 21, as part of the Spizzwinks' fall tour, the group visits St. Peter's Church in Cheshire and Assumption Church in Westport. The two shows reflect the group's pledge to each of its members: before you graduate, we'll sing in your hometown.

"My parents mentioned it to all of my friends," Massoud says. "I've reached out to all of my friends on Facebook. I reached out to some newspapers in Westport. I'm really excited."

The Spizzwinks, which formed in 1914, is one of 16 a cappella singing groups at Yale. Membership hovers around 15 to 16 people. Unlike the all-senior Whiffenpoofs, Spizzwinks singers join as freshmen and leave after junior year; some go on to join the Whiffenpoofs. (Undergraduate women can audition for Whim 'n Rhythm, its all-female senior counterpart.)

"Yale's campus in general is very music-centered," Hudson Lee, a junior biochemistry major from Cheshire (the Oct. 20 performance is his hometown show), says. "We have so many arts and performing groups, and I think a cappella provides a medium for that that's fun and casual."

Spizzwink membership offers something else: a chance to travel to all six inhabited continents.

"After not really leaving New England up to high school, suddenly I'm traveling to New Zealand and Europe and China," Lee says. "This year we're going to South Africa, Brazil, Morocco, all these amazing places."

Members raise all needed funds, without assistance from Yale. They organize rehearsals, gigs, tours and recording sessions themselves. All of that takes time, alongside the rigorous academic experience of being a Yale undergrad.

"I don't think I really realized the time commitment," Massoud, a global affairs major, says. "I didn't realize how much I'd travel. To be quite frank, I'm not sure I would have signed myself up for it two weeks into freshman year. I might have been a little frightened by how much time I was going to end up playing in the organization, but now that I've actually done it I couldn't be happier."

At a recent rehearsal at William Harkness Hall, the Spizzwinks ran through some of its repertoire: "Somewhere," from "West Side Story," a 1926 Irving Berlin song called "Blue Skies," and several others.

"The fact that we draw from both modern a cappella and old a cappella makes us unique," says Massoud. "You'll see a concert where we have modern pop arrangements in the style of the a cappella that everyone has come to know over the past five years, and in the same concert you'll see an arrangement from 1950."

Earlier this fall, Tavi Wolfwood, a freshman from Amherst, Mass., survived the decades-old traditions involved in rushing a Yale singing group: casual introductory auditions (sight-reading, solos and ensemble singing), intense call-back auditions (more of the same), and a rush-meal process (dining with individual group members).

Finally — hopefully — you get tapped.

"If they like you enough, they will tap you," Wolfwood says. "They're allowed to send you a pre-tap notification, which lets you know if you have the spot in the group. You have a couple of days to decide."

On Tap Night, a cappella groups gather on Yale's Old Campus. Somebody drops a broom. A cappella group members sprint, sometimes over long distances, to get to the first-year students; they arrive, silver cups in hand, to sing the traditional Yale Tap Song.

"You try to get to the ones you want the best," Wolfwood says. "A lot of people have already kind of told the group that they want that they want to be in it. Sometimes they haven't, so the groups genuinely do have to sprint. … It's quite a hectic process, but it's quite fun."

Wolfwood, who rushed eight different groups, chose the Spizzwinks because he liked the other guys.

"I was more interested in who the people were and how I would fit in with them, and the Spizzwinks are all such lovely people. They'll never put any pressure on you in any regard. I really felt safe with them, which is not something I felt with many other groups, or some of the other groups. I really felt like I had a place in there. I could see myself having an opportunity to shape the way that culture was going to change, and that just felt really special to me. They seemed like the best fit for me."

For Lee, who plans to pursue a joint M.D./Ph.D. after graduation, singing with the Spizzwinks is a way to blow off steam.

"It has definitely kept me sane," Lee says. "After I've worked on a problem set for a whole day, it's so refreshing to come to rehearsal and just let it out for two hours. That's definitely been much needed in my life at Yale."

The Spizzwinks perfrom Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Peter's Church, Cheshire ($15 , $10 students and seniors); and on Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. Assumption Church, 98 Riverside Ave., Westport ($15). Tickets here: spizzwinks.ticketbud.com

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