BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ask the 13 University at Buffalo students in
the award-winning, high-flying, history-making, musical
zone-dwelling, universally charming, suddenly famous Buffalo Chips a
cappella group whether they now believe the truth of that familiar
musical adage: A good song can take you far.
This Saturday -- it's just a few days away now -- the Buffalo
Chips will stand in the rarefied stage space of Alice Tully Hall in
the incomparable majesty of New York City's Lincoln Center and take
a stand to make UB history. For the first time, a UB a cappella
group has the chance to become the No. 1 collegiate a cappella
group in the country.
The Buffalo Chips, the all-male edition of UB's a cappella
groups, is already at a level where no UB a cappella group has ever
been. They placed second in the quarterfinals on Feb. 20 at the
University at Pittsburgh, earning the right to advance in the
tournament. Then on April 2 they were named Mid-Atlantic champs in
the ICCC semifinals at Rutgers University, the first time the Chips
-- or any UB a cappella group for that matter -- ever got that
"We've just been having an adrenalin rush ever since," says
Bryan Dwyer, a communications major from Amherst whose musical
credits include a high school rock band to more recent gigs singing
in an Irish band with his father. "And we just couldn't be any more
excited about it."
(To see video of the Chips in action, go to http://www.youtube.com/thebuffalochips.)
And if the Chips sang in relative obscurity before, those days
may be over for good. On April 16, they got rave reviews and a long
TV news feature from WGRZ-TV's Marissa Bailey. Two days later, The
Buffalo News' classical music critic Mary Kunz Goldman's glowing
Chips story with its four accompanying photos occupied virtually
the entire first two pages of the Sunday Spotlight section. The
boys still found time to sing that same day for the Time Warner
24-hour news station YNN.
And that was before their five-day countdown to Manhattan had
begun. It's been more than a year since David Letterman's 90-second
shout-out to UB after the Bulls beat Dave's alma mater Ball State
in the Mid-American Conference championship football game. But if
the Chips win Saturday night, who knows, maybe a gig on Letterman
could be next.
So this is crunch time for the Chips, the combined Super
Bowl/Stanley Cup finals of a cappella singing. And for their shot
at history, they have adopted another competition motto to follow
when the stakes are high: "You go with what got you there."
"Every time we go on stage, the last thing we say is 'Have a
ball, man,'" says Mike Donahue, the Chips' musical director and a
UB engineering major, who wore a do-rag during a recent group
rehearsal held until just before midnight in Dance Studio 75 in the
basement of Alumni Arena. "If we're going to win this, we're going
to win this having fun. That's why we do this. That's why we are
here. If we ever lost sight of that, we'd lose the quality in our
So the mood in the basement of Alumni Arena that evening was
loose, indeed. There were Yankee caps on the heads of some of the
Chips. Several wore gym pants ripped off below the knee. In between
songs, the Chips kicked around a water bottle cap, and traded
one-liners from "The Office." The Chips' sliding and dipping
dancing moves shared time with simulations of a quarterback
dropping back in the pocket and throwing a pass (one member who
takes classes at UB and Buffalo State College is trying out for the
Buffalo State football team). Because it's a cappella, the only
device resembling a musical instrument around at the rehearsal was
Donahue's cell phone, with its pitch pipe app. And despite the hour
and the semi-abandoned feel of late-night Alumni Arena, there was
-- as soon as the singing began -- an unmistakable and transforming
energy in the room.
Here's the musical thing with the Chips: Anyone who has ever
heard an a cappella or barbershop quarter concert understands a
little of the nuances and richness of a well-tuned singing group
that relies on nothing but the human voice. To watch these sounds
coming from college students who occupy that transition territory
between adolescence and maturity provides another dimension.
And they don't just sing. Part of the appeal and the competition
is what a cappella groups call "visual simulation," dance moves
fitting the song. It's the "choreo," in Chips jargon, which Donahue
describes as "a delicate balance" between the music and visuals. So
picture a really good halftime show at an NBA game. The Chips have
moves, and it's as if their arms and legs and necks are on
hinges. There are coordinated pushes with feet and arms, and pulls
and slides and an N Sync-esque expression that merges the song with
Then there are Matt Smith and Marc Hoffman, who supply the
percussion sounds for all songs -- bass, snares, high hats and
other drum sounds all done with their voices.
"The two of us do pretty well for ourselves," says Smith, a
communications major (not one of the Chips is a music or
But for the Chips themselves, the experience the audience grasps
is ramped up. A lot. If the subtle graduations of the sounds please
those listening in the seats -- and a cappella groups, particularly
those at colleges, are still riding a 20-year revival -- being in
the middle of all these musical buildups and breakdowns is a whole
other sensation. The entire mood and psychic texture of Dance
Studio Room 75 changed as soon as the Chips started singing.
"It's a zone of hearing everyone," says soloist James Eckert,
who solos for the groups' Ben Folds homage "Army," one of three
songs the Chips will perform Saturday night at the Lincoln Center.
"It all goes together. It's so easy, once you get into it."
"It's just another day," says Donahue. "Once you get confident
and confidence in the guys you're singing with, it's nice to know
they've got your back. You look around the group and say, 'All
right, man. We're doing it.'"
"You're like a bird riding the warm current of our harmonies,"
Darren Cotton suggested to Eckert, who was trying to describe what
it felt like to be surrounded by all that sound.
"Yeah, it's good," Eckert said. "It feels like I'm riding that
If anyone was tired by the late hour, or stressed by upcoming
finals, or down by the scene of a mostly empty gym on a weekday
night, that all changes as soon as they start to sing.
"We're in high definition," says Hoffman, an MBA student who
sang with an a cappella group as an undergraduate student at SUNY
Potsdam before coming to UB.
"So much is about the energy, the camaraderie, the music; that's
what drove me back. It's a separate place where you're being
entertained. You're not thinking of anything else. You're in the
moment with us, and to watch our energy gives people in the
And when you add in the contact high the group gets from an
involved audience -- "the smiles on their faces, seeing their eyes
light up when they watch us, seeing people's attention," Hoffman
says -- then it's something that approaches musical grace. And once
you experience that, the Chips say, it's hard to be without it.
"We see the glow in our audience," said Hoffman. "It's almost
magic to perform and see how people change, how they're moved by
our performance. To hear our sound and to watch our choreo, the
whole package gives people an idea of how powerful 13 guys singing
in a group can be."
These are self-described performance junkies. They've performed
everywhere: The memorial service for UB's beloved and recently
passed President William R. Greiner, alumni awards receptions,
weddings, birthday parties. Wherever crowds gather. The Buffalo
Chips have sung outside HSBC Arena before Buffalo Sabres hockey
games, without having tickets to the game. They just show up. They
planned to do it again before the April 17 Sabres playoff game, but
turned back at the last minute because they were worried the bad
weather might have risked their voices. They were one of four local
a cappella groups to perform for Ben Folds when he played Kleinhans
Music Hall last year, doing for him the "Army" song they chose for
the national competition.
These guys are a portable band, and following the footsteps of
other a cappella groups, they have a habit of breaking into song
whether they go.
"We were at the Family Tree Restaurant last week," said Hoffman.
"We had lunch, and we thought we'd be nice to the waitress and give
her a show. That's a lot of appeal to the group. We can bring it
out wherever ever we go."
They'll compete against five other finalists: Pitch Slapped from
the Berklee College of Music, the Accidentals from the University
of Georgia, Purple Haze from Northwestern University, the SoCals
VoCals from the University of Southern California and Divisi from
the University of Oregon.
Picking their three songs for the Final Six of the national
competition was tough. After much consideration, Donahue decided to
go with "Fireflies" by Owl City with Owen Correnti singing lead,
"Drive" by Incubus with Donahue getting the solo, then the Folds'
"Army" led by Eckert.
With that issue put to rest, one question remains:
Do they use this to meet girls?
"Absolutely," several Chips say almost simultaneously.
"I met my wife this way," says Hoffman.