A lot of things come to mind when you think of the University of Waterloo. Its world-class co-op students who do placements at such companies as D2L, Google, Vidyard, Apple, and more. Cutting-edge research with far-reaching impact on healthcare, science, technology and quantum computing. Ferocious geese that seem to multiply every year. Oh yeah, UW is also home to Canada's largest campus a cappella organization – the UW A Cappella Club – and they're singing to win.
At the beginning of the month, two of the club's teams placed in the top three of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella quarterfinals. The Water Boys placed third and the Unaccompanied Minors placed second. The Minors' second-place win earned them a spot in the ICCA semifinals – which means a UW a cappella team could be competing in the finals for the first time in four years.
It's a hard-earned victory for both teams. Practising and competing during the pandemic meant doing it online instead of onstage in front of fans. But it's also been a way to keep connected while staying apart.
The social support from being part of an a cappella team is especially important for fourth-year computer science student Zak Yew. "I came to Canada not knowing anybody as an international student and I remember checking the frosh group and someone posted about the UW A Cappella Club. I decided to take a leap and they're basically my social circle here in Canada."
UW's reputation in a cappella was a deciding factor in where to study for Angelo Lao, a fourth-year software engineering student – and one of the musical directors for The Water Boys. "One of the big reasons that I came to Waterloo was actually because of The Water Boys," said Lao. "My high school music teacher went to Wilfrid Laurier University and he'd seen them a few times. He recommended that I check them out." Lao caught a performance and was sold. "When I heard them for the first time, my mind was just blown."
A cappella music, which involves singing without any instrumental accompaniment, has been a pop culture staple in television shows such as Glee and the highly underrated Pitch Perfect movies over the last decade. While real-life a cappella competitions are nothing like the dramatizations in those movies, there is an interesting connection to Waterloo Region. "The competition that Pitch Perfect is based on is the competition that we just placed at, the International Championship of Collegiate Acapella," said Eric Pye, a fourth-year mechatronics engineering student on the Unaccompanied Minors team.
UW has been a venue for past ICCA Central quarterfinals in the past– something the Water Boys and the Minors hope returns once the pandemic is over. With their second-place finish, the Minors will advance to the semifinals, which will still be a video competition rather than in-person. "It's still really fun," added Lao.
While UW teams haven't won the international competition, they have come close. In 2017, The Water Boys were the first Canadian team in 10 years to make it to the finals.
Getting to the finals takes heart and brains. While Waterloo has a strong arts program, there is a wide range of technical programs represented within the group. Similar to how a cappella helped Yew make friends, he and others on the teams have found an extended community from competing. "It was like I struck the lottery," said Yew. "I never expected to find such a wonderful community like this from Day 1."
That sense of community continues in co-op placements and even after graduation – an a cappella alumni network. ""At all my interviews, I always bring up as my fun fact that I'm in a capella and interviewers always get a kick out of that,"" Lao said. "One time my interviewer actually asked me if I knew a person from The Water Boys because they had been a past co-op at that company."
Kelly Jiang, a fourth-year computer science student and one of the Water Boys' presidents, said a piece of a cappella swag helped her break the ice at an interview. "I was wearing an AcaBellas (another of the UW a cappella teams) jacket, it's bright red and the current co-op there knew someone in The Water Boys as well, so that got conversation kick started."
For Yew and Jiang, singing offers a much-needed break from the rigors of studying. "It's a really good, refreshing break from academics which can get heavy sometimes," said Jiang.
A cappella is a break and a creative outlet for Yew. "My program is computer science and it's a really technical, really theoretical program. A capella gives me a creative break from all the school stuff that I do."
The support network from competing in a cappella also helps with the isolation from living and studying remotely. "With the transition to everything being online and people feeling isolated, there's kind of a sense of camaraderie when you have all these groups and people that you know coming together and still trying to do the thing that we all love," added Pye.