There was nothing secret about Amherst’s a cappella performances this fall — in fact, if you were anywhere near the first-year quad on the day of the a cappella showcase, you likely heard many harmonious voices ringing across campus. But in the dead of night, members of these groups have been sneaking around campus, engaging in more mysterious — and quieter — activities.
As a “singing college,” a cappella has been central to Amherst since the 1920s when DQ, our oldest still-running group, was founded. After more than a century, a cappella groups have built a rich history of lore and traditions invisible to most students. I interviewed leaders from all six a cappella groups — Bluestockings, DQ, Route 9, The Sabrinas, Terras Irradient, and the Zumbyes — to learn about the origins of their groups, their traditions and secrets, and how a cappella has changed on campus to become more inclusive.
Throughout my interviews with each group, friendly rivalry was on display — members would often ask me what I’d heard from other groups and insisted that, no matter what anyone else said, I should only believe their version of any given story.
Even the timeline of the different a cappella groups’ founding is hotly contested. DQ is for all genders and for sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. It was founded in the 1920s, which director Claire Holding ’26 said makes it “the oldest a cappella group on campus and actually the oldest a cappella group in Western Mass.”
But the Zumbyes, an all-gender group for tenors and basses, also claim the title of the oldest Amherst a cappella group. Though they were established in 1950, they are the “oldest continually running acapella group on campus” because DQ went on a hiatus at one point, according to music director Saif Salim ’24.
“They will fight us on that,” Zumbyes assistant music director Phoebe Neilsen ’25 said.
Indeed, they did. Holding responded through an email: “We’ve been solid for a long time and are definitely the oldest group on campus!”
Other groups were founded as students’ interest in a cappella exceeded the capacities of preexisting groups.
Sabrinas is for women and femme in the alto-soprano range. Director Madison Green ’24 discussed how in the 1970s, soon after coeducation began, the Sabrinas “mostly started out as a way for people to sing who weren't going to get into Choral Society … because at the time, Choral Society was all male. So there was really no opportunity for women to sing at Amherst College [and] this was founded in effort to help them.”
Later, in 1989, Bluestockings, another group for women and femme students, was created so women had more options for a cappella and could sing a wider variety of genres. Their name was selected to reclaim a sexist phrase common at the time.
“Bluestockings was like a term, kind of, maybe not an insult, but it was like a phrase used to identify the woman who had a strong education. And were more opinionated,” business manager Maggie Pearson ’24 explained. “And so I think, when the group was looking at names, that seemed like a very good one for women at Amherst College.”
All six groups hold auditions and callbacks, where they test candidates’ pitch-matching and singing abilities. Each year, groups are looking for specific types of voices that they are missing. For example, this year, DQ was looking for new members with specific ranges. “We needed a lot of lower voices, and we didn't need as many upper voices,” Holding said.
Some groups also consider other factors — for example, the Christian, co-ed a cappella group Terras Irradient, or TI, additionally considered faith when holding auditions. They have a motto: “Praise over Performance.”
Business manager Ryan Tak ’26 said, “Of course, the musical aspect is important, but I feel like when it comes to factor in selecting people to join our group, there's also a religious component that comes into play.” Still, Logistical manager Isabel Hardy ’24 noted that non-Christian members have been part of TI in the past.
Other groups have fun, quirky elements to auditions. Route 9, an all-male group for those in the tenor-bass range, asks potential members to tell a joke. The Zumbyes have a hand-drawn audition form that asks questions like “Who made the salad?” and “How do you like to get tender?”
A lot of these auditions have fun elements because they want to find not just good singers, but good community. Time and time again, members said that their favorite part of a cappella was the community built around their groups, and they used auditions to see if candidates would positively contribute to that community.
For instance, the Zumbyes use auditions to look for “a specific energy that the group has, that's kind of chaotic, and kind of beautiful, and very just like friendly, like, all the way around and like nerdy about music, but really excited to teach everyone else about it,” Nielsen said. “We can tell when [people auditioning] have that in them.”
Multiple groups specified that all levels of experience are welcome. Holding said, “We've accepted people that have, you know, 15 years of vocal experience and people that have literally never sung before.”
Pearson’s favorite part of the auditions is seeing people grow and get more confident. “I think people get really nervous and very intimidated by the process. But I feel like at the end, people, I think, really surprised themselves at how well they learn and how quickly they learn.”
At nine o’clock on a Sunday, a dozen people ran around the first-year quad. They were not simply having fun or getting exercise — they were on a mission. It was initiation night.
Bluestocking director AnLing Vera ’25 said that “the current members go to each new member’s dorm and sing a little song [“Blue”] to them.”
Pearson added that it’s like a game of sardines. “After we sang and welcome people in, they could like, walk with us to the next dorm and help welcome the next person, which is really fun.”
Hardy said TI also sings to new members and has “a retreat, which is when we spend half a day to a day together and we do a fun activity.”
For DQ’s initiation, Holding could not reveal everything, but she did say “Part of it is divulging what DQ means, which some people on campus do know, because it used to not be a secret, but it kind of just became one now, and so we kind of just roll with it.” One secret that I could uncover: this year, new DQ members had to fry an egg.
Other groups confirmed they had some form of initiation, but they could not specify what specific activities they did. They did want to make it clear that they were consensual and did not include any forms of hazing.
“It's nothing like frat-like, chaotic like that, I promise,” Green said. Route 9 director Holden Orias ’24 noted that “If the newbies are doing it, everybody is.”
Nielsen said that consent is what makes initiation and other activities fun for them. “I remember … feeling really glad that I could just sort of enjoy it for how fun it was because I ultimately trusted the people that [were] running it with my safety.”
Bluestockings’ signature song “Blue.” Route 9’s Valentine’s Day grams. And of course, the beloved, infamous banana suit. Traditions are some of the Amherst community’s favorite parts of a cappella. But these traditions are just the tip of the iceberg; there are dozens that the average student has never even heard of.
Most groups have signature songs and group dinners to foster community beyond just rehearsals and performances.
Green said that Sabrina members receive a present “after you go through usually a full year, or at least one semester. You are given your cardigans and it's kind of like a welcome into the family.”
The Sabrinas also have a traditional Halloween show with Route 9. Route 9 member James Knowlton ’25 noted that “We don't wear our normal outfits. Everyone puts on a costume” to kick off the Halloween weekend festivities.
Other traditions are activity-based. DQ has Poodle, which is a special rehearsal that goes sometimes until midnight. Holding said, “last year, my friend and I decided that we were going to make Poodle P.J. mandatory so we did edit the DQ constitutions that you do have to wear P.J.s for Poodle.”
Hardy explained that one of TI’s traditions is when “we throw our IDs into the middle, and then we shuffle them and then everyone, like, gets matched with someone else. And then you’re supposed to like, get a meal or hang out.”
The Zumbyes have Tender Time, where they do face masks and listen to music. They have dozens of others that they could not disclose, which Salim said are “even to new members of the group slowly revealed … that adds a lot to just the fun of being a new member.”
Each a cappella group has varying levels of secrecy about their traditions and lore. Some groups, like TI and Bluestockings, could answer questions fully.
But the Zumbyes are notoriously secretive and refuse to even acknowledge the infamous banana suit worn during their performances. When I asked about the banana suit, Salim and Nielsen seemed confused.
“I used to wear a yellow tie, maybe that’s what you were referring to,” Salim said.
On the other hand, Orias said that although Route 9 has secrets, it does not like to make a big deal out of it.
“We try and sort of present ourselves like what you see is what you get. And anything that we do need to [keep] hidden in the books, we don’t broadcast that at all … We decide that there’s less of a point in saying like, ‘Oh, you know, look, we have a secret.’”
A cappella groups have changed over the years to become more modern and inclusive. Even Route 9, which was founded in 2000 and is the youngest group, has made some stylistic changes. Orias said that when Route 9 was founded, “in the aesthetic of like late 90s, early 2000s fashion, it was very much gold and like royal blue back then. But as the decades have gone on, the colors have changed.” In 2016, the dress code changed to light blue, yellow tie, and suspenders.
In recent years, Covid has spurred culture changes in a cappella groups.
“Back in the Zumbyes’ history, the group has been a little bit more closely resembling something like a fraternity,” Salim said. “Something much more closed off and could be a little bit bro-ey. Now, we’ve really been trying to emphasize making sure that everybody feels like a welcomed and valued member of the group and of the community. Trying to make sure that we all see each other as, I like to say, friends first, students second, Zumbyes third.” Part of making the Zumbyes less “bro-ey” also included admitting members who were not men, starting in 2018 with Emma Ratshin ’21.
In the reverse, the Sabrinas are trying to build more culture around their group. The Sabrinas lost many song traditions during the pandemic. Now Green says that “the Sabrinas are building up on traditions because we’re trying. We’re changing, the school is changing. Times have changed after Covid, and the environment doesn’t look the same.”