By Phil Rockrohr
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

We went from an a cappella group performing mainly on campus to opening for Ben Folds in Milwaukee.”
—Elspeth Michaels
President, Voices in Your Head

When the University of Chicago a cappella group Voices in Your Head recorded a song Ben Folds made famous, the 12 student-singers just wanted an interesting piece of music for their latest album, “Note to Self.”

Then Folds, an academically trained multi-instrumentalist and 1990s pop star, decided to collect a cappella versions of his songs for an upcoming album of his own, and suddenly “Magic” was happening.

“The timing was perfect,” says fourth-year Elspeth Michaels, president of the 11-year-old student group. “You can’t imagine it. We couldn’t have planned it.”

Folds is scheduled Tuesday, April 28 to release “Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!”—an album of 15 student groups performing songs from his albums, including Voices in Your Head’s version of “Magic.” Even though Folds didn’t write the song, he included it “just based on excellence.”

“It puts the listener in a place that’s obviously not the real world,” wrote Folds of “Magic” on his Myspace blog, “but still a hell of a cool place to live for three-and-a-half minutes.”

Folds offered his personal stamp of approval by inviting Voices in Your Head to perform three songs as one of his opening acts on March 19 at the 4,000-seat Eagles Club Ballroom in Milwaukee. “It was amazing; it was so much fun,” Michaels says. “People came up to us afterward. This super-fan woman came up and said she saw our video of ‘Magic’ and was so glad she got to see us perform.”

Several group members are longtime fans of Folds, who led the successful group Ben Folds Five before launching his solo career. “He was my first concert,” Michaels says.

A cappella groups have performed Folds’ songs “forever,” according to Voices member Chris Rishel, a PhD candidate who arranged the group’s version of Darren Jessee’s song “Magic.” “His music just lends itself well to a cappella,” Rishel says. “It’s musically interesting, but also the instrumentation is good for the arrangements.”

A Harmonious, Creative Process

A cappella groups are booming on college campuses. According to a 2008 book, Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, more than 1,200 undergraduate ensembles have formed across the nation, a century after the Yale Whiffenpoofs sparked the movement in 1909 at a bar in New Haven, Conn.

Voices in Your Head members were drawn to a cappella for obvious reasons, says Sarah El Mouatassim Bih, a College third-year. “We all like to sing,” Bih says. “I’ve always been making noise of some sort, but I didn’t actually start to sing until elementary school.”

College second-year Lily Baker says she knew at age 8 that she wanted to sing in a college-level a cappella group. “I’ve pretty much been singing my whole life.”

Zach Denkensohn, a College first-year, began traveling and competing in a cappella at age 11, but longed for the freedom of joining his own group. “I felt like I’d done enough of singing in a formal chorus with a formal teacher or director,” he says. “I wanted to do something where I wasn’t being talked down to while I was doing it.”

Michaels, who first heard Voices perform during a high school visit to campus, enjoys the group’s collaborative process. “We channel so much creative energy not just singing but in promoting ourselves, in the choreography that goes behind it, and in the group dynamic,” she says.

Success By Accident

The public exposure Voices in Your Head has gained in its relationship with Folds essentially doubled the number of the group’s performances on campus this year, compared to previous years, Michaels says. In addition, the group made its first appearance this winter at the International Championship of College A Cappella.

College first-years Denkensohn, Alex Gilewicz, Nick Balay, and Pieter Ouwerkerk reaped the rewards seemingly by accident.

“We weren’t on the album they recorded, and they kind of set this all up for us,” Gilewicz says. “We come in, and all of a sudden, all of this happens. It’s the first time this has ever happened to a group at this school. It’s incredible to just jump into.”

Looking back after the Milwaukee show, Michaels seems awed by the group’s fortune. “In the past year, this group has grown and developed so much,” she says. “We went from an a cappella group performing mainly on campus to opening for Ben Folds in Milwaukee. Our last CD gave us so much opportunity. Without all the hard work, we would never have been able to do any of it.”

Originally published on April 27, 2009.