Riddle: You are 100 years old, you are 14 in number, you are comprised of seniors, your name is often mispronounced and you’re embarking on yet another world tour—which will include a stop in Idaho for the first time ever. What are you?
Answer: The Yale Whiffenpoofs, the country’s oldest collegiate a cappella singing group.
The Whiffs, as they refer to themselves, were formed in 1909 as a quartet in Mory’s Temple Bar, a legendary private Yale club. The Whiffenpoofs (who were originally a select group within Yale’s glee club) became a hallowed tradition in a school known for hallowed traditions. Only 14 men are invited to join each year and they must all be entering their senior year. They sing everything from the traditional Yale fight song to jazz standards to Motown, and often perform original pieces written for the group by one of its members. They take their repertoire across the country and across the world and their touring schedule of more than 200 shows annually is so industrious that many of them take a year off to focus solely on the Whiffs. Borah High School graduate Sam Hafer said that many Whiffs have gone on to careers in the music industry—Cole Porter for example—but many, like ex-Senator Prescott Sheldon Bush (father of George H. W. Bush) use their experience with the Whiffs to pursue other careers. Each member of the group is in charge of things like press and accommodations for legs of their tours—Hafer is responsible for the Whiffs’ shows in Idaho and South America—so being in the group also affords an opportunity for the members to gain valuable organizational experience. Ultimately, men like Hafer—who may be the first-ever Whiffenpoof from Idaho—enjoy the group for its camaraderie, the chance to travel the world ... and because they like to sing, something that, at Yale, doesn’t make them targets of ridicule.
Unlike the peer ridicule suffered by geeks in shows like Glee, members of Yale singing groups enjoy popularity on par with athletes in other universities.
“A cappella has its own scene at Yale,” Hafer said. “Most schools have frat parties; we have a cappella parties. It’s not uncommon to have a vocal performance on a Friday night and then the group throws a party that everyone on campus is invited to.” Yale still has frats and, of course, athletics, but the arts—and those involved in them—thrive as well. Many of a capella groups even have their own call, and when say, one Spizzwink (an underclass a cappella group) sees another, he makes something akin to a moose call, and receives that same squeaky honk in return.
“It’s a weird culture and the school supports it,” Hafer said. “We have these jams in the winter where each underclass a cappella group throws a big concert for the entire campus. Five hundred to 800 people will show up and they’ll pay $5 or $10 to see it.”
The Whiffs will be joined during their Boise performance by the Borah High School Singers.