6 Steps to Joining a College A Cappella Group (or, How to Be a Barden Bella IRL)

Thinking about joining a collegiate acappella group? Here's an inside look at the process at one school. Plus, keep reading for helpful acappella audition tips!

Thinking about joining a collegiate acappella group? (And why wouldn’t you—they’re awesome.) Here’s an inside look at what the onboarding process is like at one school. Plus, keep reading for helpful a cappella audition tips!

If you’re anything like me, you spent the hours after seeing Pitch Perfect dreaming of an a cappella experience of your own. Ah, to be able to burst into song at any moment, your best friends backing you in perfect harmony. Breakout jam sessions, fantastic impromptu arrangements, adorable Treblemakers… what could top that?

But as you might imagine, the reality of collegiate a cappella is pretty different from the glossy ease of a movie. Arrangements take a ton of time to create, and usually groups don’t perform new numbers before working on them for a couple weeks. We do sing outside rehearsal, just not in perfect harmony the way Anna Kendrick and her friends do at the drop of a hat.

But despite these differences, singing with a college a cappella group (like mine, the Johns Hopkins Octopodes!) can feel like something out of a movie. It’s musical immersion on a whole new level, discovering talents and musicality you didn’t know you possessed. Learning from each other. Being exposed to (and humbled by) insane amounts of talent. Forming lifelong bonds with like-minded peers.

But how do you convert these dreams into reality? Well, let me be the first to tell you, joining any a cappella group isn’t a piece of cake. There’s a pretty rigorous audition process, and, naturally, the better the group, the harder it is to get in. Usually, college a cappella groups are only looking to take three or four new members a year. Compare that to the number of people who apply, and your odds look similar to those of getting into Yale. But never fear! Here is a breakdown of the a cappella audition process and my own audition experience.

Step 1: Discovery!

Many colleges and universities have multiple a cappella groups, and you should try to see every group on campus perform before signing up for auditions. My school, Johns Hopkins, solved this problem by creating the Orientation A Cappella Showcase, or O-Show for short. All 13 groups on campus perform a set in Shriver Hall, our largest auditorium. I was floored by the sheer amount of talent on stage, not just in the traditional pop groups but in the cultural groups as well.

If your college doesn’t do something similar, you’ll almost certainly encounter a cappella tables at the start-of-semester campus activities fair. There you can talk to members and get a sense of the group’s style, audition requirements, performance schedule, and more. And you can probably find performances on YouTube or the group’s website too.

Step 2: Signing up for auditions

There is typically a period where interested students sign up for an audition with their a cappella groups of choice. For us, that took place directly after O-Show in the Glass Pavilion, JHU’s home for most major campus events. The amount of noise that hit us as we entered the hall was tremendous; every current a cappella member was yelling great things about their group, some had performance CDs playing (even though nobody could hear them), and many members were waving posters. In the middle of all of this, confused-looking freshmen tried valiantly to push their way from table to table. My friends and I fought through the crowds to try to get to the groups we wanted to audition for, and I walked out of the Glass Pavilion with audition slips for five out of the 13 campus groups.

Step 3: Auditions!

A cappella auditions will differ from school to school, but Johns Hopkins plans O-Show and the audition process so that everything takes place over the span of a week. O-Show is usually on a Friday or Saturday, and auditions start on the following Thursday and continue through Sunday night. Basically, every group auditions everyone who signs up, which is harder for the bigger groups, because the better you are, the more auditionees you get. (Last year, when I auditioned, the Octopodes received around 100 audition requests!)

Tips for picking your audition slot:

  • Think about what audition time slots you sign up for. If you’re auditioning for multiple a cappella groups, make sure you spread them out as much as you can—and definitely make sure they don’t overlap!
  • Try to get to your top choice a cappella group’s table first, so you can pick the best possible audition time for you.
  • Earlier in the day is better, because the group won’t be jaded by hours and hours of auditions when you walk in.
  • But whatever you do, do not sign up for any audition time earlier than 11 am! (At least, I wouldn’t want to!)

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: what is the actual audition like? Well, most first-round auditions (yes, there is more than one round of auditions!) are pretty standard tests of basic musicality, skill, and vocal quality. They start out with some warm-ups, like ascending and descending scales, arpeggios, and other vocal exercises that many groups use as their own warm-ups. Often, the group will start the audition singing along, but they will drop out in order to hear your voice and get a sense of your vocal range. The nice thing about a cappella auditions is that they are individual, so you don’t have to worry about standing out in a group of singers.

Next, the group will ask you to sing a small portion of a song that you should have prepared previously—make sure you’ve prepared a song that showcases your range and talent before the audition! Most college a cappella groups will ask for a verse and a chorus, so go through the song and pick out the parts that show off your voice the best. Make sure the song fits the general repertoire of the group too; for example, don’t audition for a contemporary pop group with a classical piece. Additionally, it’s helpful to audition for every group with the same audition song if you can, just to make it easier on yourself. And make sure you know what note to start on, because you don’t get backup music or karaoke tracks to sing along to!

The group will probably then have you sing with them on one of their old songs—meaning, they’ll hand you a piece of sheet music, assign you a part, sing it for you once, and then expect you to join in. This is an audition element that knocks out three skills: ear training, sight-reading, and blend/vocal tone. Being able to sight-read gives you an advantage in any performing arts group, so if you know you want to do a cappella, definitely try to brush up your sight-reading skills before you audition. (That’s not to say that a lack of sight reading ability automatically eliminates you, but you basically have to slay other parts of your audition to be in the same place as your competition.)

Some college a cappella groups might ask you some other interview-style questions as well, some intended to sense of how you’ll fit into the group (our comedy a cappella group, the Mental Notes, sometimes asks their auditionees to tell a joke or a funny story). But for the most part, that’s the entirety of the first audition. That’s not the end of the road though; if the group likes you enough, you get to…

Step 4: The callback

This is the fun part of a cappella auditions! If a group thinks you might be a good fit, or you stand out in the regular audition pool, they will invite you back for a callback. Usually, they only call back a small group (at my school, it was around 12–16 people out of the entire audition pool). Fun fact: at Johns Hopkins, these calls come in between midnight and 1 am, so make sure you’re awake! Again, a cappella callbacks differ from group to group—some ask you to prepare a second solo, some focus on fit within the group—so I’ll just focus on what my Octopodes callback was like.

I received an e-mail around 2:30 am with directions to learn a solo from a song the group had sung in the past year. I woke up early and ran down to the practice room to learn the song, then raced out into the sunlight for my first of five callbacks.

My Octopodes callback was scheduled for 4:30 pm, and the first part of the audition was pretty much the same as the last. They warmed up with me and let me in on some unique warm-ups and vocal exercises. Then they all gathered in a circle and had me join them in some blending exercises, consisting of a round of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (yup, right back to the basics!). I sang my solo with the rest of the group singing backup; that was a pretty thrilling experience, I have to admit. Then they had us do some ear training, where the music director would play a group of notes and you’d have to sing them back. And they asked for a cold read, where we were handed a sight-reading exercise for us to sing back without the aid of a piano.

But it was the last part of the callback that was probably decided your fate with the group: the interview. Every a cappella group had questions intended to gauge personality and fit within the group. They wanted to get a feel of what about the group attracted their potential recruits. Obviously, the better your answers, the better shot you had at actually getting in. It’s best to just be yourself in this portion, because if you try too hard to fit in, chances are you’ll end up having a miserable experience.

Step 5: The offer

So the groups made you jump through two auditions as well as a personality test. What happens next? Well, now you wait. Thankfully, at my school at least, a cappella groups are required to make offers to their selected auditionees by 10 pm that same night, so I didn’t have to wait too long.

Once you have all your offers in hand, you choose the one group you want to join, call them first to accept your offer, and then call everyone else to decline, so they can offer your place to someone else.

Nothing—nothing—is as good as getting that call offering you a place in a college a cappella group. Getting my Octopodes acceptance call is still one of the best memories of my life.

Step 6: Sing-In

Now the fun begins! Most a cappella groups will have a late-night gathering after all responses are in, where the old members get to know the newbies. Group traditions are introduced; the Octopodes, for example, made sure all of us “babies” knew how to do the Wobble, since that was the group’s signature dance song. Sing-In was a great way to get to know the various members of the group before rehearsal started the next week.

So there you have it! A comprehensive, step-by-step guide to the audition process for collegiate a cappella. I hope all you singers out there decide to give it a try—you won’t regret it! And I hope you let me know how your audition went in the comments!

And just in case you forgot how great it was, here’s the Pitch Perfect Barden Bella’s final performance:

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About Ramya Prabhakar

Ramya Prabhakar is a student at Johns Hopkins University. When she is not writing, she enjoys singing, coffee, laughing, and doing things she’s not good at, like bowling or laser tag.


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