Uptown Vocal brought harmony to a divided Washington, hitting downtown D.C. to sing to visitors touring the White House’s East Wing on Tuesday. The White House Visitors Office invited the on-campus a cappella group to be part of its holiday performance schedule in October.
“The decorations were beautiful, and it was really exciting,” musical director Allison Heimann, CC ’13, said. “It happened so quickly—they rushed us in and rushed us back out, but it was a really fantastic experience.”
Beginning its two-hour set at 9 a.m., the group performed holiday songs that it arranged specifically for the White House, such as “Silver Bells” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” in addition to selections from its usual repertoire. Uptown Vocal took a tour of the East Wing following the performance.
Months after the visitors office first contacted the group about the gig, president Reuben Arnold, CC ’13, still isn’t sure how the office discovered Uptown Vocal.
“They sent us an email … saying that they’d heard of us and asking if we’d wanted to submit an application so that we could be considered,” Arnold said. “Several weeks later, they said that we’d been selected. I never actually determined who it was in the office who sort of had the connection.”
This isn't Uptown Vocal’s first high-profile gig. The group has previously opened for Ben Folds, and performs regularly for university administrators, alumni, and private groups around the city.
“Uptown Vocal has a pretty impressive resume,” former Uptown Vocal president Connor Spahn, CC ’12, wrote in an email. “They inspired Ben Folds to produce a CD of a cappella groups singing his music after he heard our version of ‘Still Fighting It.’ We opened for him at one of his concerts in NJ. The group performed on the QE2 for a week over spring break several years back, but I don't think they’d ever been to the White House.”
Although Uptown Vocal is known for its jazz numbers, it customized its repertoire to fit the occasion.
“We don’t usually do a lot of holiday music,” Arnold said. “We didn’t want to do anything that was overtly Christian because that’s sort of not who we are. But we did a lot of jazz standards, as well, that are typically part of our set, like … ‘I Only Have Eyes For You,’ ‘Fly Me to the Moon’—standard romantic jazz numbers that sort of fit the holiday season.”
The repertoire also included a few jazz arrangements of pop songs that Heimann decided to add on a whim.
“We cut some of our songs that we thought were inappropriate, but then I added them in at the last second because the crowd was liking us,” Heimann said. Some of these songs included arrangements of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.”
Heimann said she is happy with Uptown Vocal’s performance.
“We did really well,” Heimann said. “It was really early in the morning for everybody’s voices … but the group really rose to the moment and they’re fantastic.”
Although the singers weren’t immune from nerves, they felt at ease early in the performance, Heimann said.
“We relaxed very quickly because it was the type of environment we like to sing in, where people are walking around, and they don’t have to listen to us, but they can,” she said. “It’s really good for our style—our jazz style.”
Although visitors were free to wander, many of them “really got into our performance,” according to Arnold.
“It was really nice to see how many people, maybe, that normally wouldn’t be exposed to the kind of music that we perform—the a cappella vocal jazz style that’s kind of idiosyncratic—that really were able to get into it, especially when we did some of our more popular Christmas-type songs,” he said.
Unlike other a cappella groups on campus, Uptown Vocal has a “fairly specialized niche,” Arnold said. “We’re really focused on vocal jazz, which is something that most groups don’t do. Some groups have more of an R&B focus. A lot of groups have more of a popular music focus.”