When I tell my fellow Yalies about Santa Barbara, their eyes (and mine) practically glaze over with longing. In the thick of a bone-chilling New Haven winter, when the months and the class readings seem almost endless, stories about watching the sun take its sweet time setting over the Rincon become achingly tantalizing. Descriptions of my hometown elicit anguished groans from my East Coast friends, who inevitably ask, “Why would you ever want to leave?!”
It takes a pretty good answer to tide me over through months of below-zero windchill, but I think I have one. I left because I fell in love. For a hopeless theater nerd, the pull of an elegant Gothic castle stuffed full to the seams with effectively limitless liberal and performing arts resources was irresistibly alluring. One of the most glamorous parts of that appeal was the a cappella scene on Yale’s campus: 15 committed ensembles of talented singers using their love of music to form best-friendships and travel the world.
At the heart of that community is the Whiffenpoofs, the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the world. As rising seniors, undergraduate men are able to audition, and only 14 of the men who audition are chosen for a senior year experience that truly does not exist, to my knowledge, anywhere else. Each year the Whiffenpoofs tour across the country and the world, eventually making a 90-day circumnavigation of the globe that spans over 20 countries from Europe to Australia. Travel and lodging are entirely funded by revenue from concerts (not at all by Yale), and the singers themselves don’t pay a cent. Most members these days take an academic leave of absence and devote their “Whiff Year” entirely to travel and performance. It’s everything I looked for in coming to Yale: students working solely with their peers to create art on a professional level. I sweat bullets when I auditioned, and I ran literal victory laps around campus when I got in.
The strangest part is that now, a year later, I’ve told the story and explained the group so many times that it almost seems painfully cliché. But if you had told me in senior year of high school, as I spent my lunches holed up in the Laguna Blanca library reading plays, that someday I would get to travel to six continents just for performing, I might have combusted into a little puff of excitement. I remind myself every day that, even though it seems a little unreal, I am actually living the dream.
More than that, it’s a dream within a dream to be able to bring this group to Santa Barbara on April 18. To a certain extent, singing for an hour at All Saints-by-the-Sea should be just another concert. The group has already taken me to the Galapagos, South Florida, and Colombia, to name a few places — I’ve sung at American embassies and Bermudan charity dinners. But I’ve never looked forward to a concert, never been more apprehensive that a performance go well, than this public concert in Santa Barbara. It’s bringing together so many huge parts of who I am: my hometown, performing arts, and my best friends.
Because the funny thing is, I really love these guys. After spending pretty much every day with them for close to a year, sharing cramped planes and scarce toothpaste and weird food, I still love hanging out with them. I still bear hug them when I see them on the street, and I still look forward to getting Wenzels (a devastating buffalo chicken sandwich endemic to New Haven) with them after rehearsal. There’s no explanation for that, really, except that we all love music. In our own very different ways, each one of us was that nerdy kid that liked performing way too much to be mainstream in high school. And then somewhere along the line, it became cool to be that nerdy, and we became rock stars for a year. The joy of that shared experience, I suspect, is what miraculously keeps us from killing each other.
We’ve traveled to quite a few of the guys’ hometowns this year, and it’s always truly moving. It’s a bit like a rite of passage: Suddenly the homecoming Whiff is grounded in the context of his hometown. You see his parents, his friends, the restaurant where he worked part-time, and the chorus room where he learned to sing, and it always just fits. The culmination of that is the public concert, just like the one we’re singing at 7:30 p.m. on the 18th: It’s as much a chance for me to show the people I grew up with and love to the Whiffs as visa versa. Anyone who’s been to Santa Barbara knows it’s impossible not to fall in love with, and I know the Whiffs will be no exception. I can’t wait to show off the town that made me who I am to the group that celebrates me for who I am. I hope to see you there.
The Whiffenpoofs of Yale will perform at All Saints-by-the-Sea in Montecito at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18. For tickets, visit whiffenpoofs.ticketbud.com/santabarbara)