Students 'amplify' their college experience by going a cappella
From engineering to data science to biochemistry, students in all fields are bringing their voices together to create music and memories – and their next stop is an international championship competition.
Caroline Blethen grew up watching the movie "Pitch Perfect," which tells the story of a rivalry between two college a cappella groups. She always enjoyed the film but says she didn't know that kind of performance was "a real thing that people actually did."
Fast forward to her senior year at the University of Arizona and Blethen finds herself in a scene that could be pulled from the popular 2012 movie – at rehearsal, kneeling and singing backup in a circle with 11 other performers, while three featured vocalists belt "Waves of Gray" by electronic pop artist Ruelle. The singers are part of UArizona's Amplified a cappella group, and their practice has paid off, earning them a spot in the 2023 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella finals in New York City on April 29.
Amplified took first place in the ICCA regional semifinals in Phoenix in March, making the group the first from Arizona to earn a spot in the finals, where the singers will compete against performers from throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The team has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help fund the trip to the finals.
Like the other members of Amplified, one of four student a cappella groups at UArizona, Blethen is not looking to become a professional singer. The Walla Walla, Washington, native is majoring in care, health and society and plans to attend medical school next year.
"Even though I am pursuing a very STEM-focused education and going to medical school next year, I still needed that creative outlet to feel like myself," said Blethen, the president of Amplified. "It's definitely changed my college experience for the better."
A cappella 101
A cappella performance, in which a singer or group of singers performs with no instrumental accompaniment, is believed to date back to the beginning of musical performance itself. Instrumentation is often replaced by the vocalists, who supply harmonic backup tones and vocal percussion, commonly known as beatboxing.
Historically, a cappella music was largely performed in religious settings, but it has evolved over the centuries. Thanks to mainstream exposure from movies like "Pitch Perfect" and television series like "Glee," the style has seen a resurgence in popularity, particularly among high school and college performers.
Amplified was founded in 2012. Its current team is made up of 15 students: three seniors, three juniors, four sophomores and five first-year students. Vocally, the group includes two sopranos, three mezzo-sopranos, four altos, two tenors, two baritones, one bass and one vocal percussionist.
The real story of Amplified, however, lies in the variety of backgrounds, academic paths and ambitions of its members.
Voices from a variety of fields
If you look at the majors of the group's roster of students, you'll find everything from political science to wildlife conservation – but you won't find music. They say, however, that what they are learning through Amplified is in harmony with their education and career goals.
Enrique Urbina, a Chicago-born first-year student double majoring in psychology and care, health and society, is one of Amplified's newest members. His hope is to learn to heal people physically and emotionally, using music and other methods that he will learn during his time at the university.
"In my freshman year of high school, I injured my leg and had to go to physical therapy," Urbina said. "I had a big psychological block when I didn't see improvement. So, I've realized I want to be able to help people psychologically, too, and help them with their mental health."
He says Amplified has taught him to process new material quickly, and that's been a benefit in the classroom.
"When I'm studying, I'll recognize, 'Oh, this is a pattern. I can memorize this the same way I memorize music quickly.'"
Sophomore Talia Tardogno, who is double majoring in Italian and physiology and medical sciences, says her time with Amplified has sharpened her soft skills.
"It helps me with time management," the New Jersey native said. "We have three rehearsals a week. There's a schedule, there are deadlines and goals you have to meet and parts you have to memorize. So, it helps me learn to juggle more than one thing at a time."
For Alaina Wegner, a senior majoring in family studies and human development, Amplified has altered her academic path.
Wegner's major is all about social and emotional development throughout a person's lifespan. Her experience writing, arranging and performing pieces as Amplified's music director, she says, has led to a change in her focus and the addition of a music minor.
"I've studied music therapy in infancy and music therapy in older adulthood and how it can help with memory, cognition and positive aging," Wegner said. "My career goals have somewhat shifted more toward using music as a way to reach people emotionally; using music as a tool to help others."
Her music minor, she says, also helps her thrive in her leadership position with Amplified.
"When I was elected as music director, I had little to no experience in music theory, arranging or leading a group," Wegner said. "It is crazy to look back on how I started out. I went from sitting on my bathroom floor, singing into my cheap USB mic to becoming an accomplished arranger with a mini recording studio in my bedroom."
Amplified is only one of the university's offerings for students interested in a cappella. Noteriety, Enharmonics and Meow or Never also give students the opportunity to perform and compete on campus and beyond.
Over Blethen's years with Amplified, the team has won ICCA awards for outstanding soloist, outstanding vocal percussion and outstanding arrangement. But while the awards are nice, she says they are not the major selling point for the group.
"We don't want people to join Amplified because we've won anything," Blethen said. "We want people to join because it's the best fit for them. I know that the people I've met through Amplified – I'm going to have those connections for the rest of my life."
Check out a playlist of Amplified songs on Spotify. Click through and log in to Spotify to hear the full songs.
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