Last semester, The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes welcomed The A Cappella Blog to sit in on a series of rehearsals and attend their end of semester show. We would like to thank them for their hospitality. Here is the resulting article.
This fall, an undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University killed an intruder to his home with a samurai sword. This was quite a departure for JHU—a prestigious institution that tends to make headlines based upon the findings of medical research, or for the efforts of its stellar lacrosse team. Indeed, an incident such as this is a bizarre development for just about any college or university, and though he was not directly involved in the case, junior Diego Ardila suddenly found himself in the spotlight, speaking with newspaper reporters and answering questions for Baltimore news stations.
Speaking with The Baltimore Sun Ardila said of his former roommate, the amateur swordsman, “You don't expect to hear that someone you know killed a guy with a samurai sword.”
This down to earth, if almost humorous response encapsulates so much of what Ardila seems to be. While no one would expect him to be involved in an incident of violence or crime, it seems oddly fitting that he would have some connection to one of the most off-beat news stories of the year. After all, Ardila himself is likely one of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet.
Case in point, 45 minutes into a rehearsal of the JHU Octopodes, Ardila, in his role as the Music Director, announces, “All right, it’s time to check the clock.” There’s a round of ironic laughter and eye-rolling before the co-ed a cappella group circles up to practice a song called “The Clock.” “The Clock” is complex, different, and without question the most distinctive song in the group’s repertoire. It’s made all the more interesting when you realize that Ardila, a junior biomedical engineering major with aspirations of heading to med school, actually wrote the song as part of a solo guitar project he has had brewing on the side.
One might wonder how Ardila is able to thrive in so many endeavors, but for the a cappella piece of it, one answer is that he is clearly not doing it all alone.
The Sunday night after Thanksgiving, a near vacant Shaffer Hall fills with the sound of a choral opening to Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold.” Junior Cynthia Alessio, a mezzosoprano, has the solo, and sings the words, before the group echoes her, all standing in a circle:
Alessio: You change your mind, like a girl changes clothes. Yeah, you PMS…
Group: Peeee emmmm esssss
Alessio: Like a bitch, I would know…
Group: She would knoooow…
The comical opening sets the tone for a fun, high octane rendering of the song, fueled by a collection of students who clearly enjoy each other’s company, and are all the more excited to be singing together after days apart for the holiday.
It isn’t all fun and games in this rehearsal, though, just five days ahead of the group’s big fall show. For each chorus, a select group of the girls are supposed to join Alessio in emphasizing the accusatory “you” to start two of the lines. Without fail, senior Vanna Dela Cruz is one beat slow on the trigger, until Ardila begins gesticulating a cue wildly to her on each go-round.
That’s not to say that Dela Cruz is anything resembling sluggish, though. On the contrary, she swings her arms and bobs at the knees, selling choreography that the group has only begun to formulate for the song, asserting herself as the heart of the ensemble, an emotional leader to back up Ardila’s organizational savvy.
As the group finishes this song, Ardila comments that everyone needs to learn the rhythms of their parts and pay attention in performance because “I’m not going to conduct the concert.”
A squeal rises from one of the women of the group. “You’re not?”
“That’s lame.” Ardila cracks a grin. “We’re not a choir, we’re a modern a cappella group.”
The rehearsal carries on as they progress to performance formation—the soloist facing the group so she can see them and they can see her, the group having to adjust to the less comfortable stance of a double arc where not everyone can hear or see everyone else.
The Octopodes (pronounced Auct-opp-oh-dees—an archaic plural form of octopus the group chose for its moniker for no clear reason) continue through rehearsal with Ardila at the helm, but a cast of characters coming to the fore at different times and in different ways. Sophomore Tyler Goodell takes over percussion duties and keeps such a steady rhythm that Ardila describes him as a machine; business manager Jon Sole gets on his cell phone to round up group members who have just returned from Thanksgiving break but haven’t yet made it to the rehearsal room; Sha’Quayla Hill, who moonlights as the production manager for JHU Ballet, reigns in group members when they break into giggles, demanding that, with a concert around the corner, the group needs to take itself seriously; Dela Cruz stuns the room with a soft but tremendously rich solo on a ‘Podes cover of india.arie’s cover of Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter.” It’s arguable that no one visibly demonstrates greater dedication than freshman Abigail Ryan who comes to the rehearsal room fresh off her train, suitcase and duffel bag still in hand as she joins the group.
The group progresses through various methods of rehearsal, often singing in a circle before transitioning to their performance formations, and, on a few occasions, moving to “breakdown” in which one representative of each part stands at the front of the room to run through the song.
Two hours and 45 minutes in, much of the group is visibly exhausted as they take seats in the classroom space, Sole taking the floor to discuss upcoming events and notes from the business side of the group. The company charged with reproducing CDs for the group has not yet delivered. Meanwhile, the University, that weekend, invited the group to perform at a ceremonial “Lighting of the Quad” event that Wednesday night. Some balk at the prospect of learning a Christmas song over the next three nights, on top of preparing for that Friday’s concert. Ultimately, the opportunity for that kind of exposure—and an opportunity to advertise for the concert--wins out, and the group agrees that this is the way to go.
Two nights later, The Octopodes find themselves in a smaller room, prone to overheating. The cavalry has arrived in the form Doug Ceci, the assistant music director who lends Ardila an extra ear and a critical eye as the group shifts its focus to the visual presentation of its songs. Ceci guides the group through the motions of how they should turn their heads and how they should lean during The Fray’s “You Found Me,” and later teams with Sole on coordinating an effort to record the performance of several songs, so they can go back and listen for imperfections. As Andrew Ma pushes the limits of his strained voice to belt out the solo to “Human” (originally by The Killers) Ceci holds the microphone forward to capture the group’s sound, still as a statue, save for the moments when he can’t help himself from bobbing his head and mouthing along with the tenor part.
And so The Octopodes arrive in the packed Bloomberg Auditorium, prepared for their biggest show of the fall semester. They start off with “Hot N Cold.” Between songs, Ardila sips from a water bottle but doesn’t miss a beat, pointing and signaling as he drinks, directing traffic at every turn before the group moves on to “Human.” All goes well for both songs, before Ardila abdicates the floor to guest group, The University of Delaware Y-Chromes. The Y-Chromes represent a very different style of performance, already singing as they make their way from the stands to the stage, belting out Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” The boys from Delaware are not perfectly in synch, and their sound demonstrates little effort to really blend—and yet, you get the impression that they could care less about such things as they smile, guffaw, and seem to genuinely be having fun as they progress through a set that goes on to include “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies and Kanye West’s “Heartless.” It’s the type of performance that can’t help but make the audience smile along and clap their hands, embracing the side of collegiate a cappella that is not so much about musical precision as having fun with your friends—a real treat.
While it’s likely coincidence, The Octopodes seem to loosen up a bit moving into their second act. First-year ‘Pode, Miriam D’Onofrio positively rocks out on the solo to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You Been Gone,” and Bianca Kenworthy, a sophomore native of Brooklyn, NY, proves herself as one heck of a performer, building the crowd to frenzy on the solo for Lady GaGa’s “Paparazzi.”
At no points do The Octopodes seem more at ease, though, than when the ladies take a seat, and Ardila summons several alumni to the stage. This all-male subset of the group, identified as “3-2 Nitro” proceeds to sing—or, for the most part, rap—an original song about the experience of a male student at Hopkins. It’s a life of nerddom, a 60-40 gender ratio that does not play in their favor, and late nights of—well, masturbation. Guys like Alex Rose and Eric Soriano—up to that point, playing the role of ‘straight man’ to the group’s hi jinx, break loose, each claiming their own piece of the hilarious solo pie. Ardila claims a memorable piece of his own, beat boxing through most of the song before taking his shot at the solo mic, delivering his lines with a perfect deadpan, culminating in a recitation of pi that runs easily 20 digits long.
Before long, Ardila has the solo spotlight again, as the time arrives for him to sing his own composition. Ardila is positively sublime at this stage, his unique voice—somewhere in the range of Dave Matthews and Chris Martin, and yet still distinctly his own--wows the crowd as he implores them to “cut me some slack.” No slack need be cut on this one, a true victory for the group and its director.
And so, The Octopodes round out a memorable show—captivating and entertaining, but surely only demonstrating a hint of what this talented ensemble is capable of achieving. After all, The ‘Podes will have every opportunity to prove themselves again this spring, when they don’t just perform for their fans, but take the stage for ICCA competition. What lays ahead for this, one of JHU’s finest a cappella groups? Only time can tell, so be sure to check “The Clock.”