Sing an Eb if You Agree

Not that much remains of the Spring 2015 semester. One more test needs taking, boxes need packing, and an apartment needs cleaning, but after that I trade in Ithaca for Sunny(vale) Cali. Before I begin my final checklist, I absolutely need to take a moment to reflect on the events of this afternoon. A few hours ago I journeyed to the Regal Cinemas in the Ithaca mall to see Pitch Perfect 2 with my favorite Jewish-themed A Cappella group, The Chai Notes. I can’t know how this movie will affect (or won’t affect) other people, but as the cap on three years of A Cappella, Pitch Perfect 2 hit me right in the feels.

To bring you uncultured philistines who haven’t made time to see the best sequel since Home Alone Two: Lost in New York (just kidding, it’s actually Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) up to speed, here’s your super-brief summary of both Pitch Perfect movies.

  • Music nerd Beca (yes that’s how they spell her name, apparently) goes to local college because her father works there. She has no intentions of auditioning for A Cappella but is ambushed in the shower by Barton Bellas member Chloe and coerced into auditioning.
  • Beca ends up auditioning (via the cup song) and getting in to the Bellas. From there she injects new ideas into the group, fueling their drive to the top
  • At the end of the first movie, the Bellas manage to win the national title and retire in fame back to college.
  • Since the first movie 3 years have passed, since when the Bellas have consecutively defended the national title. All of the returning characters are now seniors, with one as a super-super senior who has failed classes to not have to graduate.
  • An unfortunate choreography accident ends up embarrassing the Bellas to the point of their being suspended from competing in America or taking new members. Through reasonably sound logic the Bellas determine that their only path back to fame is to win the A Cappella World Championships.
  • Standing in their way is a german group called Das Sound Machine (DSM for short) who is intimidating in just about every way, and are also the reigning world champs.
  • After falling even further, the Bellas regroup at a retreat to rediscover themselves as a group and as individuals.
  • Coming back from that, they group up and take down the world championships with a completely original song written by freshman legacy Emily and produced by Beca.

The movie does a good job of depicting the career struggle that all college students go through. In the first movie Beca struggles internally to find her place in the world, and the the second movie she works to try and prove that she deserves a slot in that world after graduation. It also both criticizes and glorifies the organization-based bonds that are forged during college, specifically pertaining to A Cappella groups but with easy extension to greek houses and academic groups. Is the short four-year span we get to spend learning all we can about our new “family” a fatal flaw in the bonds we form during college, or the hottest fire that permits life-long friendships to be created during such a short span of time? The movie seems to suggest the latter, but adds a crucial caveat: when it comes your time to move on to that next step in your life, you can’t stall with one foot out the door. The final (and hardest) step of making life-long friends during college is knowing that when college ends you have to move on to bigger and better things.

These are all reasons why I think Pitch Perfect 2 is a pretty good movie for anyone. They aren’t, however, the reasons why I was tearing up at the final victory scene. More than anything else, I can personally say that Pitch Perfect 2 perfectly chronicles the internal struggles faced by The Chai Notes during my tenure here, and I would guess that many other groups at Cornell if not nationally can say the same. Over the duration of the movie, the Bellas struggle with two central conflicts which cannot be fully resolved – they can only be patched for this generation before coming up again with the next fresh batch of auditionees.

The first conflict is particularly applicable to collegiate A Cappella, an entertainment form that requires long hours on a very regular schedule and that is populated almost exclusively by students who have no desire to make professional music into their careers. Here we are, pre-meds and engineers, designers, architects and others, who spend 7+ hours/week in the music building. Doesn’t that seem insane? The obvious question this begs is the same one asked by Pitch Perfect 2 – why do we do it? What are we hoping to gain, on a scale greater than one concert for each semester? After all it seems that after we graduate all our effort will only amount to a resume line that quickly gets evicted in favor of more career-specific experience. There are two quick answers to the question of purpose: we do it because we enjoy it, or we do it because we want to make good music. On the surface these two reasons can coexist, but it isn’t too long into the lifetime of any group before they come into conflict. Fun is rarely hard to find at the start, but when it’s the third hour of the second extra rehearsal this week, the question of why we do it is on everyone’s mind.

Over my three years we’ve come awfully close to “losing the fun” on a few occasions. We were all working hard to put together the best concert we could possibly manage, and in the process we pushed the metaphorical engine too far. Everyone was frustrated with just about everyone, and as the fun disappeared productivity started to drain with it. At each point, however, the people in power took stock and made changes to ensure that the fun came back. Every time we went up to the brink of disaster we came back stronger than ever, and with new appreciation for the people who double the above time commitment to run the group.

The truth is that without fun there can’t be good music, and without good music there can’t be fun. If everyone is pissed all of the time and everything is a struggle nothing is going to sound good no matter how many extra hours are piled on. On the other hand, if it is common knowledge that the group isn’t good, it’s hard to enjoy the experience of producing sub-par music. Seeing the Bellas up on the screen dealing with their interpersonal problems and differing visions of the group was extremely cathartic. I’ve been in that position, when it simultaneously feels like one wrong move will irrevocably break the group you’ve tried so hard to build up, but that you also are so out of energy that you just don’t care anymore. I know how much effort it takes to come back from that position both from watching it and from being in the driver’s seat, and how great it feels to have group-wide happiness and unity once more.

The second question the movie asks is one faced by every group looking to actively improve, and so certainly applies to The Chai Notes. It takes time for the question to develop in the movie, but around the campfire it is eventually aired: Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we want to be viewed as? In the movie the Bellas try to beat DSM by taking a page out of their book, but this only leads to catastrophic failure as their performances become more and more hectic. Only by returning to what made them great in the first place are they able to take DSM down and secure the world championship. This is an easy movie theme to spin (the power was within you all along!), but in reality is unfortunately only partially true. Collaborating with and learning from other competing groups around your own is a very worthwhile process, both in A Cappella and in life as a whole. I very often walk away from performances by other groups on campus pondering what my single favorite part of their performance was, and how we could better appeal to that aspect of performing. I consider myself lucky to be on a campus where each different A Cappella I see perform brings something new to appreciate and learn from.

During these internal one-sided discussions, however, I always hit up against the hard underlying truth harped on in Pitch Perfect 2 – maybe the reason that group was able to blend so well and that other group made my jaw drop from solo power was because those are just their things. Maybe instead of (or in addition to) trying to incorporate the best elements of other groups into our own we should be focusing more on what we do the best, and taking pride with that one aspect of our performance. After all, I joined The Chai Notes for a reason – I felt they were a group of people I could be comfortable around, being my regular weird self and expressing that in my performance. We let our fun fuel our performance. Doing it any other way just wouldn’t make sense to me. Just the like the previous question, this one can only be answered by a balance of the two extremes. You have to take some inspiration from outside sources, or risk becoming stale and both externally and internally boring. On the other hand, you can’t lose yourself so far into your pursuit of excellence that you forget what made your group unique, and why you joined it in the first place.

To this day I remain at the core that same quirky freshman, and I’m proud to say that our group environment hasn’t changed since. I’m also proud to say that if I were to audition today, I’m fairly confident that I wouldn’t get accepted. We’ve come a long way in the last six semesters, and I’m honored to have been part of that well-earned ascension.

Not only has the group changed, but I have as well. Thanks to my time in The Chai Notes, I am now much more able to express myself, both on a personal level and on a stage. I’m more comfortable following someone else’s schedule, and I’m able to transition between being a friend and a board member as the scenario requires. I may be the same quirky freshman as before, but I’m a lot more prepared to take on the world than I would have been with only a B.A. in CS and Econ. If I had somehow been told during my first semester how big of an impact this group would have on me, I’m not sure I would believe it. Even more worrying, I’m not sure I would have auditioned with the knowledge that I would change so much. Change can be a scary thing, and I don’t trust my freshman self to have made the right decision knowing what was on the line.

Thankfully, though, I didn’t. I walked into and out of the audition worrying only about how well I had done. I showed up to the callback late because my instructions were vague, and immediately set to wondering if I had already blown my chance. Only after our first concert did I start to realize what I had gotten myself into, and by that point I was so enamored with the group that I wouldn’t have given it up for anything.

To our seniors – Becca and Justin, you will be solely missed. Both of you are so talented in many ways and I know you’ll kick ass out in the real world. Don’t forget to drop us a line every now and again.

To the current members – Watching Pitch Perfect 2 reminded me to be appreciative of how far we’ve come. That’s not to say we should stop striving to make tomorrow’s group better, but after every event I think we’d be greatly mistaken to not take a moment and relish our successes thus far. As I’m sure you all know, we don’t have all that long in the group. Every performance, every rehearsal, and every party is sacred because starting from your very first rehearsal you are counting down to the day when you have to leave.

To those members that I haven’t met yet –  August can’t come soon enough. You’re about to embark on a journey that will change your college experience, and maybe even your life. You just don’t know it yet.

P.S. – This bulk of this post was written while listening to Dream On off of The Key Elements’ new album Catalyst. It gives an extra air of power to the post that I rather like. Check ’em out here.