Performance Gone Virtual: The Amherst College Bluestockings

A typical fall semester kicks off with the First-Year Showcase in Johnson Chapel, where Amherst’s six a cappella groups  —DQ, Bluestockings, Route 9, Zumbyes, the Sabrinas and Terras Irradient — dazzle the new first-years with a medley of captivating songs, establishing their presence with a variety of performances sprinkled throughout the semester. But ever since the pandemic disrupted the way of life on campus, in-person gatherings have been severely restricted, forcing many performance-based groups to reevaluate their plans for the rest of the year. 

The Bluestockings is one such group that has persisted despite these setbacks, prioritizing camaraderie and the strength of community during this isolating time. As the first installment in our feature series, Performance Gone Virtual, we spoke with Bluestockings music director Talia Bode Ward ’23 and business manager Willa Grimes ’21 to find out how the soulful singing group has managed recruitment, performances and more amid this socially distant time.

Lauren Kisare: Going back a year ago, when the school sent everyone back home in March 2020, what was the immediate impact on the Bluestockings?

Willa Grimes : I think, obviously, we were all pretty devastated because we enjoy rehearsing with each other, and also, our seniors weren’t going to be able to graduate on campus. It was either that night or the night after, we all gathered together in one of our members’ suites and just had a “sox bonding” — when we all get together—and we had a nice night together, lots of singing, lots of crying. We [also] tried to sing some of our more sentimental songs that we normally sing at our senior show.

Talia Bode Ward: The first thing [we asked] when that announcement was made was, How are we going to celebrate the seniors? How are we going to celebrate the work that they’ve put into this group, the time, the friendships they’ve made, the impact it’s had on their lives and the impact they’ve had on us? … I think the first thing that hit me was that … we weren’t going to have this celebration of each other in a new group that I had just been in for a semester … so we also lost that social aspect and that support system aspect of what a group like Bluestockings can provide someone.

LK: What is recruitment typically like during a normal semester? 

WG: The business managers [of every a cappella group] have a meeting every fall … [where] we try and find the best way to make auditions work. In a typical year, we would block out who gets what venue for their auditions. We make sure that none of our callbacks overlap [in] the audition schedules. Usually, people pick their own time, so we’ll post our audition sheets and slots in the entryway of [the] Arms [Music Center], and people will sign up for their own slots … Usually, it’s a little bit more high stakes. The Bluestockings typically get between 40 and 50 auditioners, and this year, we got five or six. So this year was definitely difficult.

LK: I noticed on Facebook that there weren’t too many flyers for Fall 2020 auditions. Were the Bluestockings actively recruiting around that time?  

TBW: We had a Biz Mo [Business manager] meeting at the end of August … All the a cappella groups met … and we decided to not hold auditions in the fall for a variety of reasons. Going into the meeting, my reasoning was [that] freshmen are just being introduced to campus … We [decided] were just going to let them settle in for the first semester, and then it was kind of up in the air … whether we have auditions or not [in the spring]. 

A few groups and the Bluestockings were in danger if we didn’t hold auditions, because we have 14 people in the group right now and six seniors, so we’re losing almost half of our group … Although anyone’s welcome to audition, we were worried about freshmen auditioning for groups having no concept of campus and no concept of the Amherst community. So we wanted to give them time to settle in. Usually, this is not the normal structure.

WG: In a typical year, when the Biz Mos meet, we’ll table the week up to what we call the First Year Showcase, which is when, the week before auditions, we have a J-Chap [Johnson Chapel] show. We publicize it everywhere [with posters], which is typically the most efficient way to get things done on this campus because no one really checks the Facebook group anymore … So being physically present is the best way to engage, but obviously in the fall, we couldn’t do that … We were definitely worried about being able to foster that community while remote, especially with a new person who’s typically a first year who’s new to campus and also new to our group. We wanted to make sure that we were capable of really integrating our new members in a way that would be best for them.

LK: I know the First Year Showcase is a big deal. Did that still happen this semester? 

WG: We met to try and see if we could put together a video of all the a capella groups doing something fun or performing, and it just became too complicated … It’s where we really get to showcase ourselves and the personalities of our groups, and it just wasn’t feasible.

LK: Were you able to find alternative ways to promote the group? 

TBW: It was mostly just trying to revamp the Blue Sox Instagram since we rarely post on it … I don’t know how effective it was. All the a cappella groups had really low rates of people signing up. We had maybe six people sign up, and then ultimately, only had three people audition. And we were one of the groups with the most signups.

I think it was a combination of maybe our not-great advertising, but then I think also for freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors who are camped on campus, being online for classes is hard enough. It’s kind of hard to be enticed into an extracurricular that’s also going to be partially virtual.

WG: The people who ended up signing up to audition were typically sophomores because they had actual engagement with our group in their first years. Of the six, three of them were first years, and then the other three were sophomores, whereas our typical ratio was much more heavily first-year bent. It was nice though to have some people that we already kind of knew and had been on campus be like “I’ve been waiting for these auditions and I am here!” It was a nice thing in this period of very few auditions. 

LK: How do you normally conduct the audition process? What did you do differently this year? 

TBW: I would say the biggest difference is that we had people send in videos of themselves. Traditionally, people come in, they have their slots … and they warm up, so you get a sense of their range. Then, we have them do tonal memory exercises … and then we have them come in prepared with a verse and a chorus of a song … We [also] have them tell us a fun fact or a joke, so we get interaction with them in person. And this year, we did that all online and virtually. I went onto a music software, and I created MP3 files of a warm-up … and then I created three for tonal exercises to have them repeat back, and then it was just videotape yourself doing these [exercises]. It’s going to be kind of different because you can listen to the tonal thing as many times as you want, and you can retake yourself and then just record yourself doing the solo. That was really different because it’s a lot harder to get a sense of someone’s personality when they’re just recording themselves than it is in person, having them interact with the group 

WG: I think ultimately it’s both simultaneously more and less intimidating doing it in person because you have to audition in front of people which is scary … It also allows the auditioners to get more of a sense of who we are, and it also creates a dynamic where we’re almost, in a way, auditioning for them and showing them that we are kind people and a nice group that they’d want to join while, at the same time, they’re showing off for us … I really hope that in the fall we can go back to that.

LK: Are you still able to create live music virtually? 

TBW: It’s kind of hard to do live music virtually because Zoom has the audio feature where it cuts off other people’s sounds if you’re singing. As of right now, we haven’t really started anything, but the plan is to do recordings and then hopefully, if we’re doing a song with a solo, have the backing track be recorded and that person can perform with the backing track behind them … But it’s been really hard. I haven’t been able to find software that allows you to do live music virtually.

LK: Do you all still regularly meet once or twice a week? 

TBW: Traditionally, we meet three times a week in the evening. Last year, we did Tuesday, Thursdays and then Saturdays mid-afternoon. But it’s hard to have rehearsals virtually since half of us are in person and half of us are virtual … The plan [this semester] is to have once-a-week meetings where we can check in because rehearsing online is incredibly difficult.

WG: I think what we talked about at the beginning of last semester and then reaffirmed this semester was that we were okay with Bluestockings, for this semester, being more of a social outlet. While at the end of the day, we’re an a cappella group and we love to sing, the real joy that comes out of being in our group is being together. We all genuinely love each other. Especially when you’re stuck at home or feeling isolated on campus, the Sox for us has really become a wonderful outlet for that. So we decided to put rehearsing to the side and just check in with each other and make sure that we’re feeling okay. We’re hoping, towards the end of the semester and potentially the first week or two of the summer after commencement, to be together in some capacity … and [to] make up for at least some of the time that we’ve lost together and [to] find a way to celebrate our seniors from last year and this year.

LK: During a typical semester, how did you normally rehearse in-person? 

TBW: We [would] often rehearse from nine to 11 [p.m.] last semester … If we’re learning a new song, we might split up into voice parts and spread out through Jearns [the connecting tunnel between James and Stearns dormitories] to learn voice parts and then come back together as a group. We usually spend the two hours truly singing: We’d rehearse for an hour, take a 10-minute break and then rehearse for another hour.

WG: Splitting up into voice parts is really sweet. The basses have their own little bass club — they always rehearse in the stairway. Soprano Twos always rehearse in the laundry room on top of the washer dryers. Soprano Ones always rehearse in the hallway right next to the RC [resident counselor] room in the basement …  But it’s nice to have those little community interactions within those larger groups, especially if you’re new to the group.

TBW: It was always something I could look forward to as a study break.

LK: Have the Bluestockings had any virtual performances or any performance-style events? 

WG: We considered buying individual mics for everyone and shipping them across the country to wherever. Then, we could record the backing, do the video with no sound and interlay the sounds over the video. But we decided we’d rather just be together and not be stressed because that’s how we feel when we’re together in person … Why would we want to put that much stress into something, especially during a pandemic? 

LK: Are there any projects that you’re currently working on? 

TBW: I think the two focuses this semester are just having Blue Sox as a support system and figuring out how we can have a celebration with friends and family that are virtual for our seniors. 

WG: We’ve also had a surprising amount of Sox alums from the early 90s who want to do their own 30th reunion, and one of them reached out to us about a week ago, asking us to put something together virtually together for them … That’s been a nice thing, connecting with alums. At one point, one of the alums in our Facebook from the 90s started this challenge to sing your audition song … It was cool to see them singing their audition songs, talking about how much they loved the group. It was nice to see that it has always been and still is a group that is primarily based in love and companionship and community.  

LK: Is there any kind of update or shout-out you want to leave our readers with? 

WG: Check out our Spotify. We have a YouTube — all of our live performances are there. [Also] follow our Instagram

TBW: Shout out to our new member Macie Kilgore ’23. We’re super excited to have them and bring them into our community.