It's been more than a decade since a group of students formed the coed vocal ensemble Sleepless Knights in 1999, signaling Saint Michael's arrival to the joyful pop-culture party of collegiate a cappella singing groups.
And now there are three such groups: In addition to Sleepless Knights, there's the all-male Mike Check, founded 2007, and the all-female Aca Bellas - founded just last year.
Participants say they're all about friendship, freedom, silly humor and a fun, laid-back vibe. The groups' arrangements usually are worked out by members using music software to figure parts and percussion. Along with multi-textured harmonies, arrangements typically feature vocalized rhythm and free movement or lighthearted choreography.
A handful of busy vocalists at St. Mike's perform in both the coed Sleepless Knights and one of the single-gender ensembles. Even beyond such double-duty, a good number also perform with either the music department's traditional Chorale, which sings mostly a classical, accompanied repertoire, or the Liturgical Choir, which provides music at Masses in the chapel and on annual tours, or both.
(The term "a cappella" actually translates to "in the manner of the church or chapel" because Catholic liturgical singing originally was unaccompanied.)
A cappella repertoires run the gamut of styles with barbershop classics or golden oldies popping up along with the modern stuff among the St. Mike's ensembles.
Alongside contemporary hip-hop-style favorites, Mike Check performs the group's signature song, "Goodbye My Coney Island Baby" in the barbershop tradition, and stylings of the '60s, '70s or '80s (think the Beach Boys "Barbara Ann" or Billy Joel's "For the Longest Time").
John Wall '13, a philosophy major and first-tenor in Mike Check, joined the group during his first year. "I immediately felt comfortable," Wall says. All the groups have "a pretty decent following," he says, filling more than half of McCarthy Recital Hall at the last joint concert. "We're fully in support of everyone else," he said.
"The coolest thing about us is that it's not 20 music majors. We have basketball players, swimmers, tour guides, theater majors, and some who only do this. It's an interesting mix."
As members tell it, warm camaraderie among a diverse group of good friends is a cappella's main attraction. Gabbi Hall '13 of the Aca Bellas is a varsity swimmer and top ski team racer who says she always followed and enjoyed popular music.
"I find it so relaxing hanging out with this great group," says Hall, who sings Alto Two, the lowest register in the all-women group.
"The coolest thing about us is that it's not 20 music majors," Hall says. "We have basketball players, swimmers, tour guides, theater majors, and some who only do this. It's an interesting mix. We get along great."
Jen D'Olimpio '12, a psychology major, says singing with the Sleepless Knights "played a pivotal role in making my entire college career as amazing and memorable as it has been."
Sometimes the groups collaborate on a performance, as in late March this year when all three staged "Aca-Palooza" in the courtyard outside Saint Edmund's Hall, attracting nearly 100 listeners. "When it comes together, it's an awesome thing," says Wall. "We love singing. We love to bring music to other people and it's a good way of getting out there."