For the Royal Pitches, Buffalo Chips, Singing Is a Harmonious Passion

Release Date: November 17, 2000 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Singing a cappella is a like driving down the street without signs or lane markings. Sans instrumental accompaniment, the singer must locate the pitch unerringly. The ensemble work must be deft--any individual mistake can drive the car right off the road.

At UB, two groups--one female, one male--rehearse several times a week, preparing for gigs both on and off campus and for major concerts this month. They draw their membership from many academic disciplines--what unites them is their love of singing and their delight in doing their own arrangements of contemporary music. Both groups use sound effects to mimic missing instruments.

Rehearsing in the third floor organ room at Baird Hall one recent evening, members of the female Royal Pitches talk excitedly, but determinedly, about set design plans for their Nov. 30 concert, at 8 p.m., in the Center for the Arts Drama Theater. One member talks about "huge snowflakes" seen in a local storefront, and whether or not some of the snowflakes could be borrowed for the show. "What is our budget for this kind of set design?" asks one member. "Small," responds codirector Angie Fraas, smiling. There are practical details to attend to, such as appropriate concert attire. No slit skirts please, or as Fraas puts it, "We don't want leg." Her comment is greeted with laughter.

The banter subsides when the group begins its warm up with "Seasons of Love" by Jonathon Larson. They begin, stop and start again. Finally Fraas plays a chord on the piano to locate the pitch and they proceed. April Newdorf, a freshman musical theater major from East Meadow, Long Island, has a lovely solo. Fraas, a senior vocal performance major, adds a gorgeous flourish to finish the piece.

Founded in 1997, the Pitches are primarily undergraduates who represent a bevy of academic majors, including music, women's studies, drama, business and architecture. Several are hoping for careers in singing, especially Fraas, for whom "opera rules," and Erin Gellert, a sophomore from Syracuse who would like to combine singing with a career in the professions. "Most of us just love to sing and that's the beauty of the entire thing," Gellert says simply.

Asked to evaluate the challenges of a cappella, Emily DeMeritt, a graduate student in music theory from Corning, says, "It is difficult to stay in tune a lot of the time. If the pitch goes flat, or sharp, sometimes the high and low parts have a hard time reaching their notes. Another problem is that we work hard to stay in tempo. Sometimes we aren't listening to each other and we get off tempo."

Singing a cappella is particularly difficult, says Fraas, because, for one thing, "a person has no external key to push, or string to bow, when wanting an A to come out. There is nothing to base our pitch on in the middle of a song except our own internal senses. Because of this, the dynamic of the ensemble has to be in tune. I mean, if people aren't getting along, it ruins the focus of the group dynamic and makes things more difficult. That's why it's so important to know the people you're working with in this kind of situation. We have a 'check-in' at the beginning of each rehearsal, so that everyone knows where each person is 'coming from' that day. In my opinion, this makes for a harmonious working environment-we can learn things faster and make better music."

The Pitches' repertoire has run the gamut from Richard Strauss to Melissa Etheridge, but primarily it centers on "pop/rock songs, typically performed by female artists," according to codirector Melissa Kozakiewicz, a senior majoring in women's studies from Rochester.

Beyond the musical satisfaction, membership in the Pitches can enrich the lives of these busy UB students. "I am involved in a lot at UB and when I can go to rehearsal and sing, it makes me relaxed," says Gellert. "It's something that makes me happy and I value it. If I wasn't in this group, a part of me wouldn't be complete."

Auditions conducted at the start of the fall semester help establish one's suitability for the group. "First we had to sing any song we wanted, [but] not a show tune," recalls Newdorf, who is hopeful of a Broadway career someday. "Then we were called back and learned a song from the original girls. We had to sing it and mix with other people. This was to see if we could blend well together. We had two nights of call-backs-it was a tedious process."

"We've had a lot of talented girls audition, but sometimes their voices stood out too much," DeMeritt explains. "We need to be able to blend together-this is a group, not a bunch of soloists. We also like girls' personalities to blend with ours so there's no tension."

The Pitches have had out-town-gigs including those in Rochester, Pittsburgh and at Vassar College and have participated in several vocal competitions. CDs issued include "Life's a Pitch" and "Quitcherpitchin." Recruitment, when needed, is accomplished via flyers and email.

Tickets for the Nov. 30 Royal Pitches concert, with its theme of "Starry Winter Night" are $4, a dollar of which will go to support Harvest House. Tickets are available at the Center for the Arts Box Office, Kaufmann's, Ticketmaster and Movies Plus. They also will be sold in the Student Union. After the performance, the Pitches will start preparing for an appearance in Buffalo's First Night New Year's Eve celebration.

At 227 Baird one recent Thursday evening, the male Buffalo Chips are busily preparing for their major concert, "Fall Jam," to be held Saturday at 8 p.m. in Slee Concert Hall. Their voices blend affectingly with the percussion sounds they create. These singers are contemplative during rehearsal, but laugh and joke easily when they break to discuss where the song is going, or for one singer to apologize for a vocal miscue. Beginning a song that starts with the plaintive, "Walk down that lonesome road all by yourself," they seem to be in unison, but break off to correct mistakes. The leader challenges them "to listen for breath," that is, to try to breathe without the audience hearing an intake of air.

According to Ronald E. Veiders, now retired from the group but one of the original members, the Chips had their beginnings in Spring 1995. "We had a talent show to make money for the UB Choir's trip to Italy. Five guys got together and sang 'Goodnight Sweetheart' and 'For the Longest Time' at the show. One of the guys, Mike Burrows, saw an interest in us to do more as a group, so we formed what was known as 'Cadence' for the rest of the year. We got some help from area barbershop groups and had some vocal clinics, which helped us improve tremendously. Around Fall 1995, we changed our name to the Buffalo Chips, left our barbershop backing, and began what is seen today, with between seven and nine guys."

For Matthew Shelton, Chips business manager and a third-year management information systems major from Greece, the feeling of singing is "amazing." He adds: "It's a rush to get up on a stage and have everyone cheering, and you are simply doing what you do best. I'm rarely nervous-this is something I love to do, and am good at, so I share my talent with whomever I can."

For Shelton, the challenges of singing a cappella center on the interdependence of the form. "All control of pitch, tempo, sense of rhythm, etc., are completely dependent upon each other," he says. "There is no instrument that is simply in tune to rely on, though some of us do have near-perfect pitch."

"I am excited and energized to sing," adds Brian David Anger, of Liverpool, a junior major in computer engineering. "The larger and more responsive the crowd, the better I feel."

In addition to performing on campus and in the community, the Chips also have been active in vocal competition, taking first place last February in the first round of the National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella held at Bryn Mawr College; they have applied to participate in the 2001 competition. Like the Pitches, they specialize in the contemporary repertoire, which can range from Aerosmith and Billy Joel to songs from the most recent radio playlists. According to baritone John Taylor; a biology/premed freshman from Rome, the Chips' roster of academic majors includes "a couple of premeds, computer science, communications, math, the list goes on."

Like the Pitches, a lot of emphasis is placed on vocal sound effects, mimicking the instrumental songs in a way "that will be interesting for an audience to hear," explains bass Jim Resig, an aerospace engineering major from Fayetteville. The choice of repertoire? "Anything that will get us girls," one member jokes. Of course, singing a cappella is almost always precarious. Says Taylor: "Staying in tune-not going flat or sharp. Also, sometimes just finding notes-it's a lot harder to do without a piano there to help you."

Asked to talk about their feelings about singing, high tenor Eric Fosbury says it's "an escape" from his work as a math major, a valuable opportunity, he says, to get together with a bunch of friends and have a good time. Reluctantly leaving at the end of the academic year after five years with the Chips, Fosbury says, wistfully, that he would love to be moving on to a career in music. "This is as good as it gets for me [in singing]."

Just beginning his career with the Chips is Eugene Lubliner of Miller Place, Long Island, a communications and psychology major. "I had my own vocal [group] in high school, but it was nothing compared to what I have here. It's a total escape to get to come here." Auditions are held at the beginning of the fall semester, and are done in two stages to first assess musical ability, vocal technique, etc., then to screen for vocal and personality compatibility after inviting finalists to rehearse with the Chips for a couple of weeks. Says Resig: "It makes the learning process easier and faster if you're friends and so not arguing."

The Chips harbor no feelings of rivalry toward the distaff side of a cappella singing, the Pitches; the groups remain mutually supportive but conscious of their distinct identities. Says Shelton: "Most of each group are definite attendees at each other's shows. There's always a little friendly a cappella banter, but never anything much. Most of us are friends-we all share a similar passion."

Tickets for the Chips' concert on Saturday are $3, general admission. They are available at the Slee Hall box office and at the door. The next major concert is a Valentine's Day show, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m., in the Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre.

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