The Frederick Gunn School welcomed the Yale Whiffenpoofs, America’s oldest collegiate a cappella group, for a special performance in the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center on December 7. Following the concert, students in Vocal Ensemble and String Ensemble were invited to join the Whiffenpoofs for a master class, and took a turn performing for the Whiffs one song from the school’s upcoming holiday concert.
The Whiffenpoofs performed a variety of old Yale tunes, holiday classics and hits from across the decades, including songs by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and Cole Porter, who was once a member of the singing group. The eclectic repertoire included “Down by the Salley Gardens,” by William Butler Yeats, Jim Henson’s “Rainbow Connection,” familiar to fans of both “The Muppet Movie” and “Glee,” “House of the Rising Sun,” by the Animals, and “The Whiffenpoof song,” which the group has performed at the end of every concert for over 100 years.
“The origins of The Whiffenpoof Song can be traced to a 1907 winter trip by the Yale Glee Club, when two of the group's founding members created a humorous adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem, ‘Gentleman Rankers,’” according to the Whiffenpoofs’ website. “Upon the conclusion of the song's premiere at Mory's Temple Bar, the singers declared it their anthem, ‘to be sung at every meeting, reverently standing.’” Its lyrics include references to the group’s nascency:
To the tables down at Mory's, to the place where Louis dwells
to the dear old Temple Bar we love so well
sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled, with their glasses raised on high
and the magic of their singing casts its spell
According to Ed Small, the Anne S. and Ogden D. Miller Senior Master, this was not the first time the Yale Whiffenpoofs have visited Washington. They previously performed in Brinsmade and at the Congregational Church on the Green, and Rudy Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D. ’87 is a Whiffenpoof alumnus.
So how did the Whiffenpoofs get started? As the Whiffenpoofs tell it: “More than 100 years ago, on a frosty January night in New Haven, Connecticut, five of the Yale Glee Club’s best singers convened at Mory’s Temple Bar to escape the cold. Louis Linder, the tavern’s barkeep and a music aficionado, welcomed them in, beginning an institution that survives to this day.”
One of the five original singers, Denton “Goat” Fowler, is credited with giving the troupe its name, inspired by a joke about a mythical dragonfish. The red emblem is proudly worn by today’s Whiffenpoofs on their black, long-sleeve tap shirts, a more casual alternative to their traditional tuxedos.
In response to questions from students following the concert, the Whiffenpoofs spoke about their backgrounds and experience, and how they got into the group. Every year, 14 senior Yale students are selected to be in the Whiffenpoofs. They take senior year off, postponing graduation, and together perform more than 200 concerts across six continents. Some of the group’s current members did not go to Yale intending to become Whiffs, and some had not even heard of the Whiffenpoofs until they attended a performance at the start of freshman year. “We all come from different places. We all have different musical backgrounds. Some of us didn’t sing in a cappella groups before this year, some of us didn't play musical instruments outside of this,” Cam Rao, a tenor 2 from Washington, D.C., explained during the master class. Rao played tenor sax in a Yale jazz combo before joining the Whiffenpoofs.
Yale’s a cappella tradition includes an all-female counterpart to the Whiffenpoofs called Whim ’n Rhythm and 14 underclassman groups that comprise freshman to juniors, said John Paciga, a tenor 1 from Annandale, New Jersey, who has perfect pitch, is the musical director of the Whiffenpoofs, and previously served as musical director of the Yale Spizzwinks
Members of the group offered FGS students practical advice for practicing and performing. As Paciga said: “A cappella singing has to be very precise, because even if there’s one person who is a little bit off, the whole thing is going to sound a little bit off. It definitely takes a lot of practice. We are really, really fortunate that everybody here had some kind of musical singing experience before coming into the Whiffs, whether a cappella, musical theater, choral style of singing, songwriting, and doing music stuff on your own. The most important things are trying to blend with each other. When we start learning a new song, we focus firstly on the rhythms and the pitches. At the very beginning it just sort of sounds like four different groups of people singing a different thing. What it takes to kind of really bring that together is, after you are confident with your own part, understanding how what you’re singing fits into the context of the whole arrangement— as a Tenor 1 knowing the moments when I’m singing in unison with the baritones. If you’re a middle voice, oftentimes you have crunchier notes and tougher harmonies to sing. So knowing those moments when you’re a half step apart or a whole step apart from somebody else, and getting used to what that sounds like; getting used to what jumping a fourth feels like, what jumping a fifth feels like — all of these things that are super, super important for achieving that precision that a cappella sort of demands. At the end of the day, it just takes a whole lot of practice and a lot of hard work. But the fact that you’re making music right through high school, like I think a lot of us did, is the best thing you can do right now.”
All of the songs in the group’s repertoire were arranged by current or former Whiffenpoofs. “There are some songs in the rep that have literally been around for more than a century that we still sing, and then there are other songs that were arranged about 10 years ago. A lot of songs that we sing come from the list of yesteryear, but a lot of us are working on writing arrangements right now,” Paciga said, noting that the current Whiffs are hoping to record those new arrangements in an album that will be released on Spotify.
In another tradition, when they are inducted, all new members of the group are given a Whiffenpoof name, a pun of their last name, such as P.J. “I see London, I see” Frantz. In all of the arrangements that are passed down, the name of the Whiffenpoof who wrote that arrangement appears in the top right corner along with their Whiffenpoof name in quotation marks. Follow the Whiffenpoofs on Instagram and TikTok.
Photo Credit: Liflander Photography