HARTFORD, Conn. — Leaders of the Whiffenpoofs, Yale University's world-famous glee club, say their sound isn't changing, but they are ending their more than century-old tradition of being a male only a cappella ensemble.
The Whiffs, as they are known, and Yale's senior women's a cappella group, Whim 'n Rhythm, issued a joint announcement Feb. 1 that tryouts for both groups will now be open to all rising seniors, including transgender students.
The move, they say, is designed to give more people access to what can be life-changing travel opportunities and music industry contacts that come with being a member of the nation's oldest collegiate a cappella group.
"Both Whim 'n Rhythm and the Whiffenpoofs acknowledge the transgender, gender-nonbinary and gender-nonconforming members in our community, and understand that they feel unseen within the current paradigm of 'all-male' versus 'all-female' senior a cappella," the groups wrote.
But, the ensembles say they aren't changing their sound. The 14-member Whiffenpoofs, a group formed in 1909, will continue to comprise tenor, baritone and bass voices, and the Whims will continue to be for sopranos and altos.
Auditions, which are conducted by members of the current ensembles, were held recently in New York and will continue through the upcoming week, said Kenyon Duncan, the Whiffenpoofs' music director.
The change has been under consideration for several years and was made after a year of surveying alumni and the student body at the Ivy League college in New Haven, Connecticut, Duncan said.
"There is a lot of emotion there," said Rich Johnson, who sang with the Whiffenpoofs in 1981 and is president of the alumni association. "There are some who think it's long overdue. Others think it should never happen because, 'My experience was perfect and I don't want you to disrupt my memory of the Whiffenpoofs by making it co-ed.' And then, there is every opinion in between."
Linus Travers, who sang with the Whiffs in 1958, said the group has a tradition of changing with the times, noting there were once no black or Jewish members. But he also noted that single-sex groups have a certain sound, and some worry that might disappear with the current changes.
"It would be the same as if the string quartets disappeared," he said. "If there are no more string quartets or the federal government requires saxophones to join them, it's a different sound. Not necessarily better or worse, but different."
Eric Rice, head of the Department of Music and a music historian at the University of Connecticut, said the decision by the Whiffs and the Whims is part of a trend among a cappella groups.
The Whiffenpoofs decision, he said, is important because of the group's prestige as the oldest such collegiate group in the nation. The ensemble tours the world and has access to famous and powerful Yale alumni.
They have literally been the music of the old boys' club, he said, holding regular concerts for over 100 years at Mory's Temple Bar, an eatery frequented by a who's who of the Yale elite.
"The question of access also has to do with contacts in the music world and who was in it in the past — being part of the same ensemble as Cole Porter, for example," he said. "That type of access is incredibly important."
That's one reason Yale's ensembles also are changing the way the two groups operate, acknowledging a "gap in opportunity" between the better-know Whiffenpoofs and the lesser-known Whim 'n Rhythm.
The groups will now have a joint website, with shared booking information and a more closely integrated business team, they said. The idea is to better share the Whiffenpoofs' financial and prestige advantage, Duncan said.
"Since the announcement, we've already been contacted by venues that want to hire both groups, and we haven't even created our joint website yet," said Gabriella Borter, the business manager for Whim 'n Rhythm.