This week, Bowdoin a cappella groups have been busy with auditions, call-backs and inducting new members into the six organizations on campus—including the most recent addition to the a cappella community: Bear Tones, a group for female and treble voices. The group was founded to fill the void left by Bella Mafia, an all-female group which was founded in 2006 and dissolved last fall. 

Anna Schwartzberg ’17, a member of Ursus Verses and president of the A Cappella Council, as well as Max Middleton ’16, of the Meddiebempsters and former president of the A Cappella Council, sought to balance out the a cappella groups on campus. The call was answered when Professor of Music Robert Greenlee recommended Rose Etzel ’19 for their strong skills in leadership, conducting and music theory. 

On the sign-up sheet for the group, Etzel, who uses they/them/theirs pronouns, listed Bear Tones as “a female/treble a cappella group,” noting that “female/treble means anyone with female or non-binary gender identities, inclusive of all trans people.” Two people had already committed to the group before auditions began on Monday; 23 people auditioned this week, and eight were accepted, according to Etzel.

Seeking to provide a space for greater inclusivity on campus, Etzel founded Bear Tones to counter what they believe is a gendered space in a cappella. 

“I never like the idea of how binary the whole gender situation is, especially with a capella groups. It always feels kind of exclusive and restricting,” they said. “If they’re musically qualified, who cares?” 

Etzel hopes to form another community for trans people on campus.

“It’s always been kind of a weird situation for people if there’s someone who’s gender nonconforming and wants to be in an a cappella group,” they said. “It’s been like, ‘Will I belong in this group that’s all-male or all-female? Will it be comfortable?’” 

Etzel intends to prepare the group for a Family Weekend concert, which has typically been the first concert of the year for all a cappella groups. Beyond creating a new sound and offering another option for female/treble voices at Bowdoin, they have goals beyond simply performing.
“My goals—not necessarily musical goals—are just kind of to put it out there that it’s possible to be more inclusive in that kind of stereotypical a cappella environment, which has always been kind of structured and set in stone—so it’s good to bring that new vibe into it,” Etzel said.

Noah Dubay ‘19, a member of the Longfellows who also uses they/them/theirs pronouns, was excited to hear of Etzel’s founding of the gender-inclusive group. 

“There’s this whole idea of ‘vocal cohesion’ and the idea that the voices have to mesh, and so you have to wonder, even if someone who identifies as a man and wasn’t assigned male at birth—can the Longfellows, say, like, ‘Well, your voice type isn’t exactly what we’re looking for?’” Dubay said. 

“And then that raises the question of, ‘Is that considered discriminatory, or not?’ considering they could say the same thing to someone who is cisgender and identifies as male,” Dubay continued, speaking to the need for vocal cohesion.

With the growing inclusion of gender nonconforming voices, Dubay hopes that Bear Tones has set a precedent for more innovative types of a capella. 

“I think [that] moving beyond gender and specific vocal parts can musically diversify an a cappella group. We have a cappella groups that are more interested in specific types of music and specific types of composition, as opposed to, ‘Well, we’re all here because we’re men and we sing like this,’ you know? It’s an invitation for more creative musical thought and I think it’s a challenge, but it’s an optimistic challenge,” Dubay said.

They see Bear Tones as an opportunity to create additional spaces for trans people on campus and greater inclusivity.

“I think it’s exciting that it’s not going to be a duplicate copy of Bella Mafia,” said Dubay. “And I think that this new and different stance that they’re taking on it is just opening a door to all sorts of other opportunities.” 

Schwartzberg sees the group as an opportunity to draw upperclassmen to a cappella. Involving upperclassmen may also promote the longevity of the group. Cole Burkhardt ‘18, vice president of the A Cappella Council, said that without upperclassmen, Bear Tones has the potential to fall apart. Schwartzberg suggested that the group may also have spring auditions.

“Obviously they’re filling the same niche of a treble-voice, all-female group on campus and filling out that missing piece. But I think they will develop their own unique identity,” Middleton said. 

“That’s the amazing thing about Bowdoin a cappella, that we have six groups on a pretty small campus, which is already absurd, and the fact that all six groups are good, and that each one is able to have their own identity, visually and musically. I have no doubt that the Bear Tones will be able to find their own,” he continued.

In carving out its own niche on campus, Bear Tones joins a conversation with implications beyond Brunswick.

“These days, you hear more and more about organizations, companies branching out in different ways. It’s coming on the national scene, too. College campuses are definitely the fore-front of that,” Etzel said.