As the SoCal VoCals a cappella group turns 20 this month, USC’s oldest such team is “killing it” on a string of ridiculously high notes. Its 12 members recently returned from a gig in Washington, D.C., entertaining the president and first lady at a White House party. And they were crowned ICCA world champions last April. Again.
For those who haven’t seen Pitch Perfect, ICCA stands for International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. And the SoCal VoCals pretty much own it, according to Newsweek and The New Yorker.
The team has won the Super Bowl of a cappella an unprecedented four times, with wins in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2015, the last four times the VoCals entered. Preparation is so grueling that the group usually takes a breather in alternating years.
Their story began in the fall of 1995 — before American Idol, Glee, The Sing-Off or Pitch Perfect — when founding member Brock Harris ’97 posted flyers inviting Trojans to form an a cappella group. He didn’t expect much.
“Contemporary a cappella was this strange nerdy-niche thing,” said Harris, then a junior from Victoria, British Columbia who was majoring in filmic writing. An obscure Ivy League tradition, such singing was virtually unknown at USC.
Yet Harris’ phone started ringing off the hook the day his flyers went up, and more than 60 people came out to audition.
On Feb. 11, 1996 — the group’s first rehearsal, held in a Von KleinSmid Center classroom — the 18 inaugural members blended their voices for the first time. A month later, the singers made their debut at Tommy Trojan’s feet with original six-part plus “vp” (vocal percussion) arrangements of Blondie’s “The Tide Is High” and “Come On, Eileen,” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
From the start, Harris had a vision: Unlike Yale’s tuxedoed Whiffenpoofs, the USC group would spearhead a new style of pop-and-rock-driven a cappella.
The VoCals were an instant hit. Within a year, they were playing one or two paid gigs a week — including the Board of Trustees’ annual retreat — and had recorded their first album, This Ain’t No Choir, Babe.
More a cappella groups began popping up around campus.
I started the wave. I was very proud of that.
“I started the wave,” Harris said. “I was very proud of that.”
Aca ’scuse me!
Harris is the first to admit that the caliber of VoCal singers has greatly improved over the last 20 years.
“I would not get in the current group,” he said. “None of the original members would.”
Yet SoCal VoCal alums — all 120 of them — are the bedrock that anchors the group. Tradition-bearers, mentors, sponsors and die-hard fans, they follow the team from concert to concert, troubleshoot on thorny new arrangements, set up jobs and internships for members, subsidize travel and recording expenses, help with vocal coaching and host students in their homes when the group goes on tour. Three times a year, SoCal VoCals past and present come together to sing and mingle at weekend retreats and special “alumni rehearsals.”
Harris credits these tight intergenerational bonds with the group’s staying power.
“Very few student organizations persist decade after decade,” he said. “You look at old yearbooks, and they’re full of pictures of USC student organizations that no longer exist. This group was meant to be a long-term thing.”
New York, New York
Lucy Jackson ’08 was one of about 50 SoCal VoCal alums who traveled to New York City to root for the team at the 2015 ICCA finals.
“They were so incredible this last time,” she said. “I was weeping in the audience. I didn’t breathe. I loved being a part of it.”
An after-party hosted by alumni went into the wee hours.
A Los Angeles marketing professional who moonlights as producer of the ICCA Northwest and Southwest quarterfinals and semifinals, Jackson was a VoCal when the team captured its first ICCA championship.
Rehearsing a 12-minute song set over 275 hours will forge an unbreakable bond, she said. “It was so intense — the connections we had at a musical level, but also at an emotional and storytelling level. We were one. One brain connected through lots of voices.”
Harris, now a Southland-based independent realtor, has stayed intimately involved with the group as its landlord. In 2005, he purchased a nine-bedroom old Victorian on 27th Street that has since become the hub of VoCal activity, and he takes no profit to keep rent affordable.
“I think we’re the only college a cappella group with a home base like that,” he said.
Rehearsals are held Wednesdays from 10 p.m. to midnight and Sundays from 4 to 7 p.m. Four ICCA trophies adorn the entry hall, and framed SoCal VoCal posters and memorabilia line the walls.
Alumni help in other ways, too. Veteran a cappella choreographer Lili Fuller, longtime girlfriend of VoCal alum Joseph Sofranko ’09, has crafted championship-winning dance moves for each ICCA song set.
“We’ve had former music directors come in and workshop our music with us before ICCA,” said current VoCals president Jonathan von Mering, a junior in USC’s BFA in Acting program.
Many VoCal alumni work in the entertainment industry, and a few are bona fide stars. There’s songwriter Ross Golan ’01, who penned No. 1 Billboard hits for Maroon 5, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban; two-time Grammy-winning Pentatonix vocalist Scott Hoying and music arranger Ben Bram ’10; Broadway performers James Snyder ’03 (If/Then), Donald Webber Jr. ’08 (Motown, the Musical), Catherine Ricafort ’09 (Allegiance) and Bryce Ryness ’02 (Matilda, the Musical); and actress-singer-songwriter Kelley Jakle ’11, who played Jessica, one of the aca-awesome Barden Bellas of Pitch Perfect.
“Year after year, no matter where they’re at in their lives and careers, our alumni come back and share memories and advice,” von Mering said. “It’s a powerful reminder of how special this group is.”