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A Whiff of Change: Improving the Senior A Cappella Experience at Yale

“To the tables down at Mory’s, to the place where Louis dwells, to the dear old Temple Bar we love so well, sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled, with their glasses raised on high.”

If you walk by WLH on the right afternoon, you may hear echoes of the famous Whiffenpoof song. Its lyrics, adapted in 1909, have been sung by the group for over a century—standing now as an emblem of Yale’s culture and tradition. First sung at Mory’s, later to be performed at the end of every Whiffenpoof show, the anthem is reminiscent of “a time gone by,” linking generations of the group’s alumni together.

However, while the Whiffenpoof Class of 2019 continues to meet at Mory’s and sing the group’s signature score, the group can no longer identify itself as “gentlemen songsters off on a spree.” After decades of discussion and deliberation, the traditionally all-male a cappella group admitted its first female singer in February of last year: Sofia Campoamor ’20. This decision, which to many seemed long-overdue, marks the Whiffenpoofs’ first step to becoming a more inclusive singing space for rising seniors of all genders at Yale.

“The conversation about whether or not the Whiffenpoofs should admit women is one that has been going on since the eighties,” explained Nick Massoud ’20, the Whiffenpoofs’ current business manager. “But one of the reasons the change took so long is that earlier groups didn’t know how to come to a decision. Did the vote have to be unanimous, or simply a majority? Should the group try to preserve its reputation as ‘old boys’?”

Until 1969, Yale was an institution for men, and it was not until 1987 that women first auditioned for the Whiffenpoofs, forcing the group to come to a vote. David Code ’87, the first Whiffenpoof to vote in favor of admitting women into the group, remembers the early debate clearly. He explained that at the time, many Whiffenpoofs were more concerned with their public image and prestige than they were with ensuring equality of opportunity for all genders. “When I became a Whiffenpoof, I made a pact with myself that I would try to make the group more inclusive, so that I could justify the hedonism I was about to enjoy,” he described to The Politic. “I had some allies in the group, but they were not prepared to take a stand. So, I spoke up. I went to the press.”

After interviewing with journalists from the Yale Daily News and from The New York Times, Code explains that his life “became a living hell” on campus, marked by severe scrutiny and alienation. “My last few months at Yale were very difficult to say the least. Those who supported me were not as vocal as those that were against me.”

Since the initial 1987 vote, waves of Yale students have sought to continuously challenge the Whiffenpoofs’ all-male policy—circulating petitions around the university and attending auditions in protest. In 1981, an all-female a capella group called Whim‘n Rhythm was founded to balance the decades-old tradition of the Whiffenpoofs and give women a greater opportunity to participate in senior a cappella.

But still, exclusivity and inequality remained.

“There has always been an inequality in finances between male and female groups on campus,” explained Gabriella Borter ’18, last year’s business manager for Whim ‘n Rhythm. “There’s more demand for all-male groups who represent Yale tradition, and they can get away with charging a significant amount more for each gig they perform.”

Traditionally, members of the Whiffenpoofs take a leave of absence after their junior year to travel for twelve months and perform as a group. In the past, the singers of Whim n’ Rhythm have not done the same, continuing to juggle their senior-year academic responsibilities with their singing careers. This has changed slightly since both groups decided to go all-gender last year, with some members of the Whim Class of 2019 choosing to take a semester off.

In February 2018, both Whim ‘n Rhythm and the Whiffenpoofs made the joint-announcement that they would self-identify as ‘SSAA’ (Soprano I, Soprano II, Alto I, Alto II) and ‘TTBB’ (Tenor I, Tenor II, Bass I, Bass II) groups respectively, rather than “all-female” and “all-male.” Through a Facebook post, they promised to increase inter-group collaboration through joint rehearsals and concert—ultimately decreasing the gap of opportunity.

Alexandra Gartner ’19, a current member of Whim ‘n Rhythm, believes that these initiatives are working. “The current members of the Whiffs have been very proactive in working with Whim to correct the inequality between the two groups by combining our business teams and working out the profits we receive to ensure that we are getting paid the same for the same work.”

However, while members of both groups foresee greater cooperation, others doubt that the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm will ever stand on equal footing while existing as separate entities.

“The Whiffenpoofs’ long history and deep networks that even precede co-education at Yale make it difficult, if not impossible, for Whim ‘n Rhythm to stand on the same financial footing,” says Ariela Zebede ’19, a current member of Whim n’ Rhythm. “The groups either must work together to make up for disparities in opportunity, or change the current structure of senior a cappella.”

Borter agrees. Though she thinks that more women will join the Whiffenpoofs in the coming years, she is unsure as to whether Whim will attract men with the same potency. “Whim was founded as a group of women who wanted to have a similar opportunity to the Whiffs, but there will always be a unique exclusivity to the Whiffenpoofs. I don’t know if men would want to join the welcoming offshoot space Whim promises to be.”

Last year, despite receiving a record number of auditions, Whim ‘n Rhythm only had one male audition for the group. He dropped out in the early stages of the process, so his audition was not actively considered as Whim’s 2019 class was formed.

Campoamor always planned on auditioning for both Whim ‘n Rhythm and the Whiffenpoofs, even before changes were made in the groups’ eligibility requirements. Now, after months of singing with the Whiffenpoofs, she explains that she’s never felt more at home. Her experience has been overwhelmingly positive—a testament to the current group’s unity.

“The current class of Whiffenpoofs is one that I feel actively supported by,” Campoamor explained to The Politic. “I had no reservations before entering the group, and can continue to say that the experience so far has been great. Whenever we come around crowds who may be confused or want us to explain the change, I have a support system with me cheering me on. I hope to see more people that are not men audition for the Whiffs. I want this community to be available to as many people as possible.”

Kenyon Duncan ’19, the former music director for the Whiffenpoofs, carries forth Campoamor’s sentiment. “The Whiffenpoofs are more than anything a group of friends who want to make music together and share with an audience,” he said. “Putting gender in there or creating lines of division where they don’t need to be is what we tried to eliminate. It’s more simple than it seems complicated.”