The Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s all-male a capella group, and the world’s oldest and best-known collegiate a capella group, just returned from a four-day trip performing in Bermuda.
In mid-January, the Whiffs wrapped a winter tour which included stops in Colorado, Nashville, New Orleans and Dallas. In May, the 14 singers will gear up for their annual international summer tour, traveling to 25 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.
But for at least two members of the Whiffs, next week’s four-day tour of the Washington, D.C., area is this year’s most anticipated stop.
“One of our favorite destinations is where our group members are from,” said said 21-year-old Bethesda native Reuben Hendler. “It’s always fun to take the group back to our home community.”
“It’s really cool to be able to bring people over and introduce them to your family and show them where you grew up,” said Andy Berry, the Whiff’s musical director and a native of Cabin John. “It’s kind of crazy, your two worlds colliding.”
Stops along the D.C. tour include concerts open to the public at Saint Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring and The Church of Redeemer in Bethesda. The Whiffs also have shows scheduled at Sidwell Friends School and Walt Whitman High School, Hendler’s and Berry’s alma maters, respectively.
The Whiffenpoofs were founded in 1909 at Mory’s Temple Bar, a famous New Haven tavern. To this day, the Whiffs still perform a weekly concert on Monday nights at Mory’s.
According to Hendler, Yale has a “tremendous singing tradition and has over 15 different a capella groups.”
But the Whiffs are unique. Being a member of the Whiffenpoofs isn’t just an extracurricular activity. It’s a way of life.
Typically, students audition for the group after their junior year. Due to the Whiffs’ demanding touring schedule, most members choose to take a year off, although Hendler said this year, two members are enrolled in classes full time.
“ ... I spent a while making sure I was making the right decision,” said Berry, who is currently studying psychology but hopes to pursue opera in the future. “You just kind of commit to adding another year to [your] undergrad. I want to pursue music as a career and figured this was a neat way to get my feet wet ...”
This year, all members of the Whiffenpoofs have different majors. Oddly, not one of them is studying music.
For Hendler, a cognitive science major, the decision to join the Whiffenpoofs was one rooted in family tradition.
“I knew I wanted to sing [in the group] because there is a tradition of Hendlers singing in the Whiffenpoofs,” he said.
Hendler’s older brother, Micah was a Whiffenpoof and graduated from Yale last year. Hendler said his first time ever seeing the Whiffenpoofs was at one of his brother’s concerts.
After graduation, Micah moved to Jerusalem where he started a singing group for Israeli and Palestinian children. The Whiffs plan to sing with Micah and his group during their visit to the Middle East as part of their summer tour.
While the Whiffenpoofs’ musical repertoire honors the group’s rich history and tradition with ballads and older music, Hendler said the group is working on updating its set list.
“We have a lot of newer contemporary work entering our repertoire,” Hendler said. “We were on NBC’s ‘The Sing Off’ two years ago and that was a great push for modernization ... We have begun to sing more popular music or in a more popular style.”
But in the age of “Glee” and “Pitch Perfect,” Hendler said the Whiffs still manage to remain dedicated to their time-honored sound.
“The Whiffenpoofs have maintained their traditional musical style even as a capella changes,” Hendler said. “There is no beat-boxing, which is kind of the standard for a contemporary a capella group.”
“We try to cater to certain crowds,” added Berry, who among other things, is responsible for choosing the group’s repertoire and consulting clients about the song list. “We have a pretty large pool to draw from.”
While Berry said he’s enjoyed the once in a lifetime travel that accompanies being a Whiff, serving as musical director has proved to be a full-time job. The return to school in the fall will be a welcomed change.
“A year of doing this, it’s proved a lot less of a vacation than I thought it would be,” Berry said. “I think it’ll be an adjustment ... [but] I’ll feel ready to kind of sit down and do work.”