What OwlCappella Means to Me

I always say that a cappella groups are like children. There are a ton of them, and most of them are pretty okay, but MINE is just amazing. I thought that the same was true about mine, and that we probably weren’t as good or important as I believed. This weekend, much to my humble delight, the current members of OwlCappella proved me so wrong.

Anybody who knew me when I was in college also knew everything there was to know OwlCappella, simply because it was all I would ever talk about. Even though my diploma says my major was Computer Science, let’s be real, I majored in OwlCappella.

 Alex, me, and Tom rehearsing OwlCappella's first song: Insomniac by Billy Pilgrim. (who?)

Alex, me, and Tom rehearsing OwlCappella's first song: Insomniac by Billy Pilgrim. (who?)

The group was started by Bexx Rosenbloom in the fall of 2010, my freshman year. Short of one high school musical, I had never been in any sort of musical group before. I didn’t know how to read music, and I passed the sight reading/theory part of the audition only because the test was written on the blackboard in the audition room - Presser 126 - and we could see it from the hallway. My new friend Tom told me the italian words that mapped to each symbol, and I memorized them for the audition 20 minutes later. They actually thought I knew what a sforzando was! To my absolute astonishment, that night, I got an email saying I was in.

I’ll never forget that first rehearsal, when 16 strangers got together and started learning our first song. I had no idea what was going on or how to read the music put in front of me, but I did learn that day that I was a low bass and could sing lower than most of the group. So I just did that. And man, did I have a freaking blast. I basically danced the whole time, and people noticed. A Temple News reporter came to a rehearsal to do a story on Temple’s starting a co-ed a cappella group, and she asked me, “Do you always get that into it? Even when rehearsing?” Yeah. I do.

Those first couple years, we weren’t the best group on campus. The other two had been around for years, we often had trouble tuning, and we always sped up our songs A LOT. But, I absolutely revel in being an underdog, and as we got to know each other better and established chemistry, there were more and more flashes of greatness. I was having a blast, but I didn’t realize the potential we held until our first gig away from Temple when we went to Pittsburgh to perform with a few of their groups. When we did our version of Fidelity by Regina Spektor, we brought the house DOWN, mostly thanks to Lisa’s unmatched chops as a soloist. It also was our first original arrangement!

That night, I caught a fever that never went away. I became obsessed with pushing OwlCappella to be bigger and better. Admittedly, I often took that obsession way too far, and it definitely rubbed some people the wrong way. I stepped on some toes, and I was very persistent with steering a lot of the decisions we made. For most of the group, it was a fun extracurricular activity. For me, it was everything. 

I had ideas about how we should sound, so I decided to try to teach myself how to arrange. I started by torrenting some music arrangement software and just pressing buttons. I knew what I wanted each part to do, I just had to figure out how to get it on paper. Thankfully, the program plays the note on the staff that you click on, so I just clicked around until it played the note that I wanted. I arranged a few popular songs at the time, and they turned out pretty well! In fact, Super Bass and Set Fire to the Rain became two of our flagship songs that semester, with the latter actually being performed by a group in China. Though I’ve since learned how to read music and what the italian words mean, to this day I still arrange mostly in my head by listening to a song on repeat for 2 hours. My personal favorite arrangement, Blue Ridge Mountains, was arranged on a train ride to Delaware where I literally listened to it 24 times in a row. I went home to Finale (the software), plucked it all out, and was done with it.

Year 2: Set Fire to the Rain

By the end of my sophomore year, the group had been around for two years, and we had already made a name for ourselves. We were here to stay, and it was only just beginning. And, through it all, you could feel the hunger that we had to be bigger and better. We had become a tight-knit parliament of owls, and lifelong relationships were blossoming. We all cared so much about everything that we did, and alongside these friends, I was in my element.

There was a notable shift in the group at the beginning of my Junior year. We had established a new from of group governance, and I was elected president. We wrote a new group constitution together, and we set some extremely lofty goals. We wanted to shift the group into overdrive - we didn’t only want to be the premier group at Temple, we wanted the city. We wanted to be in the same conversation with the other nationally-known a cappella groups. We decided to record an EP and try to compete in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCAs). Luckily for us, a cappella had started to enter the national spotlight with The Sing Off, Pentatonix, and Pitch Perfect. In fact, our very first gig in this “new era” of OwlCappella was singing at the Temple premiere of Pitch Perfect. We wanted a slice of the national attention.

Year 3: Paradise

We got to work right away, and boy did we exceed my expectations fast. That fall, we opened up for the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and crushed performances at other colleges. We recorded our first EP, laying down 5 full songs in 7 straight days at the recording studio. We released the EP - Owl or Nothing - two months later, which in retrospect is an insanely aggressive timeline. That April, as we stumbled upon our twitter mentions, CBS Philly had ranked us among the 5 best singing groups in all of Philadelphia. Only 2 college groups were on that list!

Though, I also learned a lot about pacing, and realistic expectations. Some things we weren’t able to do at the drop of a hat, most notably the ICCAs. We held a couple of choreography rehearsals, and it was just too much for us to bite off all at once while revamping our operations and figuring out how to get into the recording studio. We dropped that goal, which was the right call, and that was the first time I realized that I wouldn't be in the group forever. We focused on recording a great album, with the hopes that maybe someday the future owls would take a crack at the ICCAs.

All this time, I had grown so much as a leader, performer, and friend. OwlCappella had become the central piece of my identity. My best friends were in that group. They not only let me sing with them, but they let me be in charge too. Those are my two favorite things! And not only were they the most fun people to be around, but they also crushed it both on the musical and organizational side. Gray, the Vice President, and I disagreed on almost everything, and we loved it, because we always came to a compromise solution that was even better than each of ours. Jenn was crushing the outreach and business management side, and STP was bringing our musicality to new heights.

I also felt like I was really hitting my marks in terms of arrangement and performance. My arrangements of Paradise and Keep Breathing were featured on the album, I was beatboxing for most of our songs, and our bass section was really becoming a powerhouse.

As my senior year approached, I started to think about the group without me and my fellow original members. I realized that I was making most of the decisions, arranging at least half of the music, and doing the vocal percussion for almost every song. This was super fun, and I’m pretty sure most of the members were happy with our dynamic (if not, they didn’t tell me), but it wasn’t sustainable.

So, my senior year, I backed off a bit. I started intentionally not volunteering to beatbox. I deferred on far more decisions to the democratic process. And, I was just less pushy. Hopefully, this had an effect in preparing the youngins to take over. Evan was redefining what a good music director is. Sean and Tyler were stepping up as leaders. The whole group was into the vision, and I was pumped about that.

We recorded another record (Out of the Nest), and though this time we weren’t as prepared and we tried to squeeze 7 songs into seven days, I still think one year’s growth is evident in the sound and production. My arrangements of Blue Ridge Mountains, Royals, Iris, and Take on Me all made it onto the EP, and I cherish those recordings to this day.

My senior concert - wow, did we come a long way.

Though, I should note that several of the songs on the records - and that we performed over the years - were expertly arranged by other group members - Jenn, Tyler L, STP, Evan, Nick, and Ian were just as if not more pivotal in our rapid growth, through their intuitive yet elegant arrangements.

We continued to hit milestones - especially recording our first music video! Boy, that was one of the most fun days I've ever had.

Anyway, I graduated in 2014 with such a mixture of sadness, pride, and a readiness to move on. I was, and still am, so very proud of all that we accomplished in 4 short years. The friends and relationships built over that time were rock solid and of the most important in my life. Through recording those two albums at Silverstone Studios, I got connected into the Orpheus Club, which has continued my growth as a musician and performer. I was confident that the group would continue to progress with the core of talent the original members left behind, and most importantly, I knew that if I auditioned for the group in the fall of 2014, I would not have gotten in. That’s how much we had improved.

I figured that the group would continue to grow steadily and would settle into being a consistent staple around Temple and Philly. This wasn’t to say that those who followed me wouldn’t be talented or driven enough to take it to the next level, it was just that it was SO DAMN HARD and unlikely for anybody to do so.

The first few years after leaving, I was impressed with the group’s continuous growth musically. That was always our sole barometer of success. The arrangements were more and more elegant, and the intonation, dynamics, and overall performance was way beyond what the OG group was capable of.

LOOK HOW GOOD THEY ARE

As time went on, naturally, I gradually distanced myself from the group. I still participate in our Owlumni Facebook group, but more often than not their events coincided with my Orpheus commitments, so I wasn’t really present. Plus, with each semester, fewer and fewer of the group were kids that I sang with, so I just didn’t know them as well.

And, as I’ve gotten wrapped up more in adult life, My thoughts, feelings, and memories of my time with OwlCappella have dulled. Most of those who I sang with have moved out of Philly, and just in general I had forgotten the passion that I had for the group. Since I hadn’t really seen their progress over the past couple years, I assumed they had fallen into a regular groove of “pretty pretty pretty pretty good” that would last a long time.

Boy, was I wrong.

This past weekend, I traveled to New York City to watch OwlCappella compete in the ICCA Finals.

That’s right, OwlCappella was competing as one of the top ten collegiate a cappella groups in the WORLD.

THE WORLD.

 I couldn't believe my eyes.

I couldn't believe my eyes.

Without me noticing, and right under my nose, this group had taken the baton from that original group of 16 and absolutely left us in the dust. That fleeting dream we had in 2013 of being in the national a cappella conversation? The one that we had chalked up to a pipe dream? In FOUR YEARS they SURPASSED IT. From the first rehearsal in fall 2014 all the way through to today, they were getting better faster than we did!

The night of the finals, as they crushed their 12-minute set in front of thousands of people, including producers of Pitch Perfect and The Sing Off, I fanboy’d in the crowd like I never have before. In fact, my fitbit registered a heart rate of 117bpm. My usual heart rate is about 54.

They were doing things not only that I never thought OwlCappella would do, they were doing things I’ve NEVER SEEN live. Stuff I’ve only seen on TV and in the movies.

I still can’t believe it. They didn’t place, but, objectively, that’s bullshit. They were no question among the top 3 performances there, as confirmed by every audience member who saw my OwlCappella shirt and even those in online forums.

In my day, we were floored to be rated among the top 5 groups in Philly.

OwlCappella is one of the top 3 groups in the world. 4 years later.

I got chills typing that.

I’ve never felt so honored and so humbled. Let me be the first to say, this accomplishment is not mine. The talent and hard work that each member of the group put into this accomplishment probably surpasses that of the entirety of my iterations of the group. (Amazingly, Eric was both in my last iteration and this most recent iteration - what growth he’s seen!) We never would have had the determination to work that hard. We probably didn’t have the chops. I definitely don’t look that cool when I’m dancing.

Yet, these kids have been so appreciative, and haven’t passed up an opportunity to thank us. They’re celebrities to me, and yet they give us so much credit for their accomplishment. I’m really freaking proud, almost cocky, about what we did in my time as an Owl, so I drink up every bit of the praise they give to us. But really, for the first time, I feel unworthy of calling myself an Owlumn. And I freaking love it. 

At the afterparty when I gushed to any of the members who would listen about how blown away I was, I sensed the same hunger and underdog determination in them that we had as we started the group.  They weren’t satisfied being on the stage that we didn’t even bother to dream about. This, to me, is the most exciting part of all. It’s only just begun - OwlCappella is on the world map, and here to stay.

 LOOK AT THEM THEYRE PERFECT

LOOK AT THEM THEYRE PERFECT

As Gray and I sat in the audience as OwlCappella’s biggest fans, and as we reminisced about our own time in OwlCappella on the bus home, the feelings of pride, amazement, and love that I felt at my last concert all came rushing right back. I thought of people I hadn’t thought of in years. I longed to be with them again, dropping the beat of Paradise, dancing to Thrift Shop, and proving all the doubters wrong.

My heart is so very warm after this experience. I’m so, so happy for those kids and their achievement, and I’m honored and prouder than ever to be a part of the Owlumni.

To my fellow Owlumni, I highly recommend you tune in more than I have. These kids are doing incredible things, and we get to be in the front row and brag to anyone who listens. Adult life is no joke, and we may not know most of these Owls too well quite yet, but they’ll bring you right back to those good times. They’re you.

To OwlCappella, I thank you. For reminding me where I came from, yet showing me what it truly means to think big.

And to everyone else, I’m sorry not sorry. You’re going to start hearing about OwlCappella again.

They’re an elite, world-class a cappella group, and I’m the proudest grandpa there ever was.