Amanda Grish Newman is the executive director of Varsity Vocals—the company that runs the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, among other things. A long-time fixture on the collegiate a cappella scene, Amanda was a member of No Strings Attached, out of the University of Illinois, before joining Varsity Vocals as the Midwest producer, and then advancing to her current role. Today, she shares her story, as a woman who has made a career out of leading the a cappella community.
Sometimes I wish I had a “real job.” You know, one of those jobs you can sum up in a matter of mere syllables, in an industry that people have actually heard of. Accountant. Teacher. Web Designer. Heck – I’d even consider Dog Walker.
I mean, how on Earth do I explain my career as Director of Varsity Vocals to people outside the a cappella community?
“I work for a company that organizes programs for … um … well, have you ever heard of a cappella? College and high school a cappella groups?”
To which, inevitably, seven out of ten people will respond, “You mean, like, those Carmen Sandiego guys?” Or, worse, the self-assured “Oh yeah, I used to love that Bobby McFerrin song!” Or, with a twist of the knife through my heart, the dubious “Uh, like, barbershop quartets?”
That, or—after my awkward attempt at explaining the phenomenon of competitive collegiate a cappella that we all know, love, and follow with bated breath—they look at me blankly, with just a hint of judgment, like I must be completely crazy for wasting my obvious talent and beauty and three college degrees screwing around with these weirdo choir groups that no one has ever heard of.
We in the a cappella community have known for a long time that it is the former choir boys turned a cappella stars that get all the girls. We know that people turn out in droves for a cappella concerts, where tickets are sometimes scalped and autographs are always signed (and perhaps not always on paper).
We know that singing with our groups has brought us all over the country, and sometimes all over the world. We know that groups spend thousands on their albums, and make thousands more selling them. We know that singers from our own ranks go on to make it big in television or the music industry.
We know (perhaps too well) how many of us neglected our academic studies in college so we could focus on what felt like not just our real major, but indeed our raison d’être. It is, was, and always has been all about those two little Latin words that represent so very much: A CAPPELLA.
But to the rest of the world, we have always been, well, kind of strange.
From time to time, my own father will ask me how “the singing group” is going. I know he means well, and so I patiently explain, for what seems like the millionth time, that what I am doing now is different than the a cappella group I sang with in college. Dad listens, nods, and tries to hide that same look of incredulity that he can’t conceal when I insist that the drums and saxophones he hears on the Real Group album I bought him last Christmas are actually coming from peoples’ mouths.
Last month, my dentist said she just couldn’t believe that, at the colleges she has recently toured with her son, the campus tour guides would go on and on, not about the football team or fraternity scene, but about the school’s awesome and numerous a cappella groups.
Lately, though, something interesting has been happening. Our phones have been ringing with calls from major news media, documentarians, record labels, and reality TV producers. The rest of the world has finally caught on to what we’ve long known to be something really special, totally inspiring, and completely unique—and they want a piece of it.
Now the original members of Straight No Chaser have a recording with a major record label. Mosaic won a huge MTV contest, beating out bands with actual instruments, and Hollywood is abuzz with plans for TV shows and movies and public television specials about a cappella.
From the time I got involved in Varsity Vocals, nearly eight years ago, I have hoped for the day that people would not just understand what it is that I do for a living, but that they would be able to appreciate just how much I, like so many others, have wholeheartedly devoted my personal, social, and professional life to a cappella.
I have hoped for the day that we would know for certain that we are not just a community unto ourselves, but part of something bigger that has the capacity to reach out and inspire the masses.
And, my friends—my Do-Re-Migos, if you will—that day is finally here. Our time is now. Just what will the future of a cappella bring?
I’ll have to get back to you on that. Right now, I have piles and piles of a cappella CDs to listen to. For some reason, people keep sending them to my house.