The rivalry. The romance. The riff-offs. What’s life really like for Britain’s very own Treblemakers and Barden Bellas?

In 2011, two weeks before the Royal Wedding, an all-male a cappella group from St Andrews university uploaded a video onto YouTube. The Other Guys covered Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, but changed the lyrics to tell a story of unrequited love for the Duchess of Cambridge. Filmed around the rugged coastline and historic buildings of the royal couple’s alma mater, it went viral.

Three weeks later, Oxford’s all-male a cappella group took on the same song in a shock audition on Britain’s Got Talent. Painted by producers as giggling geeks in suits and ties, Out of the Blue’s performance was unexpected and knowingly camp; it has been watched four million times on YouTube.

Despite this, most people don’t know that Britain’s universities are in the midst of an a ca-boom. In less than 20 years, student a cappella groups have multiplied tenfold. Groups of around a dozen bright young things spend an average six hours of rehearsal time a week interpreting well-known songs with a passion that has led to albums, corporate videos and international competition. For three tuneful years, these students pour their hearts into a cappella, before it all begins again with the next generation of Freshers.

Accompanied not by instruments, but friendship, drama and short-lived romance, the fiercely competitive American equivalent inspired Mickey Rapkin to write Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory in 2008. Four years later, writer Kay Cannon adapted it into a $112 million-grossing film. Now, Pitch Perfect’s producer and star Elizabeth Banks has directed a sequel, in which plucky heroines, the Barden Bellas, must defeat the world’s best groups in order to redeem themselves following a humiliating mishap on stage.

The Barden Bellas are a group in statis: with tired material and an uptight leader fearful of change (Anna Camp), they must overcome their fears and bond together to triumph over other, arguably better, groups on a national stage. Heightened reality, rock star treatment, rivalry, romance  how do real a capella groups compare?


Exeter's all-male a cappella group, Semi-Toned, on campus Credit: Semi-Toned/Semi-Toned

Britain’s a cappella scene is infantile in comparison to the US: collegiate a cappella has a history almost as long as America’s own. The first known group formed in 1873; the longest still running, Yale’s amusingly named Whiffenpoofs, were established in 1909. By contrast, St Andrew’s The Madrigals, the UK’s oldest group, have been going since 1946.

In Pitch Perfect, the Treblemakers  the triumphant all-male a cappella group that stands in the way of the Barden Bellas’ success  were reportedly based on The Beelzebubs, the Tufts University group founded in 1964 who have performed in Carnegie Hall, complete with their striped ties and blazers. International tours and an innovative approach to singing harmonies mean that, as Rapkin noted, “being a Beelzebub means giving your life over to the hive”.

But if Pitch Perfect was set in the UK, the Footnotes would be Out of the Blue. Recently, the University of Oxford had a YouTube hit with a spangly rendition of Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie filmed on the cobblestones of the city’s Sheldonian Theatre.

During this academic year alone, Out of the Blue have toured the East and West Coasts of America, filmed videos in Malta  paid for by British Airways  and the Moulin Rouge and spent their Christmas holidays spreading the a cappella word to schools nationwide. After sitting their summer exams they will headline a festival in Montreal and spend four weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Out of the Blue film the video for Club Tropicana in Malta Credit: Out of the Blue/Out of the Blue

Group president Jack Remmington, a blue-eyed baritone with a soft Lincolnshire accent, admits that during the six-week long Easter holiday, he only spent three nights in his own bed.

Perhaps this is a small price to pay for being Britain’s a cappella royalty. Members of other groups describe them as “a commercial machine”, and with a female following as large as the funds they generate from gigs, “kind of like One Direction”.

When Remmington got to Oxford Freshers’ Week, he recognised Out of the Blue’s posters around campus from Britain’s Got Talent and auditioned on his birthday. “It was at the end of Freshers’ week,” he recalls, “and I had completely lost my voice.”

By the end of the week he had made it through two further auditions and an informal interview to be woken by a phone call at 4am  after hours of intense group deliberations – telling him he had made it. It was in those early hours that he was presented with his own Out of the Blue striped tie, an integral part of an initiation ceremony he says is “very much sworn in secrecy”.

In October, 120 auditionees battled for six places. “Far harder,” as Remmington points out, “than getting into Oxford”.

The a cappella sisterhood

Oxford's all-female a cappella choir In The Pink Credit: Rosie Mai / In The Pink/Rosie Mai

Perhaps the aspect of a cappella that Pitch Perfect gets most right is the sheer fun of it all. “We are a lot like Pitch Perfect,” Emily Lassman admits. “Completely. We kind of model ourselves on them.”

Lassman is a low soprano from In The Pink, the all-female offshoot of Out of the Blue, with whom they have a “love/hate, brother/sister relationship”.

With tumbling hair, little black dresses and matching pink sashes they resemble the perfectly turned-out Barden Bellas. Also like the fictional a cappella group, the “Pinkies” have also grown closer after overcoming initial “teething problems”  the kind of thing that happens when “12 big personalities” collide in a rehearsal room.

Lassman says: “We’ve seen a real shift in dynamic as we’ve grown closer  last year it was very much an extracurricular activity, but rehearsals now are just chaos.”

“You’ll come in and the girls will be all on top of each other, laughing, screaming, biting each other  it takes 30 minutes for everyone to calm down and get anywhere. It’s just so much fun.”

King's College London's all-female a cappella group The Rolling Tones Credit: The Rolling Tones/The Rolling Tones

Zara Tso, musical director of King’s College’s all-female The Rolling Tones, calls her group “a sisterhood”.

“It’s so hard to describe what the group feeling is like to someone who’s not in it,” she says. “The bonds you create with these girls... There’s an emphasis on talking, and we all know everything about each other.”

As Elizabeth Banks’s character Gail notes in Pitch Perfect, there really is an “a cappella glass ceiling”, in part because all-female groups struggle to reach the bass notes which add percussion to unaccompanied songs. Nonetheless this year, like the Barden Bellas, The Rolling Tones became the first all-girl group to reach the final of a major national competition since 2009.

It built the Tones’ profile, and brought 200 applicants out for seven places at the start of this academic year  generally speaking, more female freshers audition for a cappella groups than male ones.

But if you think this would make girl-on-girl competition rife, you’d be wrong. “We don’t have rivals within the other all-female choirs,” Tso says. “If anything, we really like to try to reach out to those groups.”

The rivalry

All The King's Men, the all-male a cappella group from King's College London Credit: Emma Nicholson / All The King's Men/Emma Nicholson

Historically, In the Pink have a rivalry with The Oxford Belles, the university’s other all-female group, who were formed nearly a decade earlier and have toured internationally. They have a similar aesthetic to the Pinkies  but their signature colour is blue. “We’re meant to have a rivalry with them,” Lassman says, “but we don’t really speak to them so we don’t. We stay out of each other’s circles.”

Many of the all-male groups I speak to admit that Out of the Blue are their biggest rivals. George Rolls, a second year dentistry student who doubles as the manager of All the King’s Men, King’s College London’s all-male a cappella group, sees things differently: “I don’t see Out of the Blue them at competitions any more,” he says. “They have bigger things to do.”

But, increasingly, so do All the King’s Men  in six years they have become the first group outside of the US to reach the finals of the ICCA  the biggest international a cappella competition, in New York  three times.

This year, All the King’s Men got there by just two points, narrowly beating Exeter’s Semi-Toned, victors of the 2015 Voice Festival UK competition and purveyors of a foot-tapping mashup they call Lowtown Funk.

Rob Cross is their 20-year-old manager, and explains that “there’s always a bit of rivalry” between certain groups. Because the university competition takes place during a festival, it provides groups with a rare opportunity to socialise together. By most accounts the atmosphere is supportive and friendly, rather than fiercely competitive.

But when it comes to performing, there can be a shift: “On stage it’s definitely a case of each group for themselves,” Cross explains. “Some groups do think less fondly of Out of the Blue because they don’t make the effort to socialise so much  although it’s through no fault of their own, they have far more things to do now.”

“I think it’s a mix of jealousy on some parts, but also they do make less effort within the a cappella community.”

“The inter-group bitchiness of Pitch Perfect is spot on,” says Chris Bland, a former member of both The Alternotives and Out of the Blue before graduating last year. “Everybody wants to be the best group. That’s slightly true to life.”

Cambridge's mixed a cappella group, Cadenza Credit: Cadenza/Cadenza

Rivalries can be far more local on those campuses where new groups are springing up every few years. It’s certainly been the case in Cambridge, where third year students Will Fearle and Ollie Clarke are both members of mixed group Cadenza. When I call them, they are in a cafe in Cambridge, their similarly enthusiastic, well-spoken tones difficult to tell apart.

Both joined Cadenza in the same year  2012, shortly after the group had won The Voice Festival UK competition and were “a big deal”. But tides can turn quickly with members graduating every summer, and within two years Cadenza were working to rebuild their reputation within Cambridge, let alone nationwide. For reasons even Searle and Clarke don’t understand, Cadenza chose not to defend their title, the first group ever to do so.

So the 12-piece invited a cappella heavyweights Out of the Blue and All the King’s Men to play a few gigs in Cambridge, out of a mixture of “raw ambition” and the fact they have friends in both. The shows were later branded as “Cadenza Vs Out of the Blue”, but in reality, Searle says, the only thing competitive that went on was the drinking afterwards.

Now the group are in a position to reclaim their title as Cambridge’s finest a cappella choir  and there’s a competition on campus to settle it, once and for all.

“There are so many groups and they all claim to be the best,” says Clarke.“At least after this we’ll know that only one can put ‘Cambridge’s Best A Cappella Group’ on their posters.”

The auditions

Imperial College London's' all-male choir The Techtonics Credit: One One 7/One One 7

Sometimes, rivalries can begin even before the first group social. “The real competition comes during audition time, with choirs vying to get the best new singers,” Bland remembers of his time at Oxford.

The audition process to get into Techtonics, the all-male group from Imperial College London, is particularly intense. Musical director Alex Moore admits that the 60 boys who auditioned for six places in October were “put through their paces”.

“My favourite test to get them to sing chromatic scales,” he says. “That’s a really important one, or we’ll give them a really scrunchy scale and get them to pick out a note, that’s very hard.

“It’s not just about the voice. You can be a great soloist but wouldn’t be able to sing in close harmonies. You need someone who can sing in that dynamic.”

“I’d say the audition process is the closest my life has got to Pitch Perfect,” Clarke says of Cadenza’s selection process. “We’ve had a fair few people try out who you could drop in the middle of that montage and you wouldn’t notice the difference.”

He and Fearle reminisce over whittling down 200 people to four over three “delirious” days: “It can get a bit X Factor," Fearle says. "There have definitely been auditions I’ve had to excuse myself from to find a hasty exit.”

Clarke remembers an audition in which “someone sang Part of your World from the Little Mermaid, but was reading the lyrics. The result was this half-sung, half-said opening line, ‘Look at this thing, isn’t it neat?’ while she was staring at an iPhone. I had to leave and take a long walk during that.”

Fearle chips in: “There was another guy who came in on our final day of auditions. We’d all been there for seven hours. When he got to the climax of his song, which he had sung entirely at our group-member Lucy, he ripped off his shirt and threw it at her. We had to email him saying we appreciated his enthusiasm but he didn’t make the cut.”

Bland stresses personality is as important as vocal talents, however: “You spend a lot of time with the other members, and you don’t want to end up with some idiot.” As Moore says: “We don’t want any divas.”

The romance

Anna Kendrick and Skylar Astin in Pitch Perfect

In Pitch Perfect, one of the fundamental Barden Bella rules is that relationships with members of The Treblemakers are forbidden. This makes life rather difficult for Barden's Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Jesse, an enthusiastic Treblemaker, who caught each other's eyes on their first day at college.

“There have been some controversial affairs, affairs being the operative word,” the boys in Cambridge reveal. “Some things have happened that shouldn’t have."

In a mixed group, things can get a little complicated, Fearle and Clarke tell me, especially when suggestive choreography means watching your new love interest gyrate on another member.

A few years ago at Cambridge university romance bloomed between the FitzSirens and Fitz Barbershop, arguably the country’s most old-school close-harmony groups, who wear elbow-length evening gloves for the girls and boater hats and bow ties for the boys. Current member Freya Saunders, an English student at Murray Edwards college, says that the pair, who graduated three years ago, are engaged, and are getting married this summer.

But that couple are hardly typical. “There have been relationships with a cappella singers from outside Cadenza, which are a terrible idea,” says Searle. They rattle off an anecdote about watching a member of Cadenza, who had been seeing someone in the group, kiss one of the Out of the Blue boys in a nightclub. “One Cadenza member ended up chasing another down the streets of Oxford…” Searle concludes, “but it all sorted itself out.”

All of the groups I speak to admit to romance taking place, although they are usually more fleeting: “There a couple of intergroup relationships across all the groups, but often you’ll only meet people once or twice a year at competitions, so it rarely gets beyond what happens that night”, explains Rolls.

Indeed, the Cadenza member who caused controversy in an Oxford club can count herself lucky  other female a cappella singers have failed to have the same success with Out of the Blue. “Have we had any flings with them?” Lassman repeats my question. “We wish! Many of us wish! Many of the guys aren’t straight, but if they were we’d definitely be interested.”

The riff-offs

One of the more satisfying scenes in Pitch Perfect is the riff-off, in which the different a cappella groups at Barden University come together to compete with improvised arrangements. 

It’s pleasing to report that spontaneous outbreaks of singing take place in the UK, too. “If people are sufficiently sober, we try to have a riff-off,” Moore says of the parties that take place when Imperial’s five a cappella groups are in attendance. “But it’s kind of just a heightening of how groups like to sing songs at each other anyway. We make up the rules, it’s pretty messy.”

Alcohol tends to play a part in such proceedings  In the Pink are frequently shushed in nightclub queues; The Other Guys’ inebriating initiation ceremony usually results in a lot of “singing on roundabouts”; and The Rolling Tones have been known to harmonise with dance tracks in clubs. Assemble a few sober members together in public, however, and four-part harmonies likely to follow.

“We sing spontaneously all the time,” Remmington enthuses. “Especially when we’re driving for six hours. All we ever do is out-riff each other and sing along to songs in the car. But we are always singing when we go around together. Even when we’re visiting schools, the boys will harmonise in the corridors  I’m constantly like, ‘shush! we’re in a school!’”

For Tso, the ability to conjure up a tune together is what it’s all about: “One time we started singing Nineties songs, and formed a medley spontaneously. It felt so incredible, but we couldn’t remember it afterwards. Somebody described it as ‘giving birth to music’.”

“That’s a cappella encapsulated, really: it’s a surreal, weird experience which feels really good.”