A Cappella Admissions with Isaac Willnow of the Nor’easters
Being an essential member of an internationally-recognized and very important a cappella society is rather strenuous. Unlucky for you, the job isn’t fit for everyone. Lucky for Isaac Willnow and the Nor’easters, they were, in essence, born for it.
The Nor’easters, of course, are known as Northeastern University’s leading a cappella group starring as one of the five collegiate teams on Pop TV’s Sing It On. They’ve been ranked continuously at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (that’s the ICCAs to the pros), taking the top prize in 2013. While the docu-series follows several groups through the demands of achieving a cappella glory—including their on-campus rivals Pitch, Please—the Nor’easters are the pacemakers, the ones to beat. The breakthrough, however, is that the Nor’easters experience just as much drama as the rest. In fact, they’ve faced a sincere tragedy of their own, having recently lost a member of their group.
“[Kevin] struggled with depression over the past couple years,” Willnow, the Nor’easters’ music director, says. He adds that the group raised $30,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Even though the pain may not be visible, it is just the same, and it’s killing people. We are trying to show that the Nor’easters are more than just a singing group, but we’re also a family.”
For Willnow, a music industry student, it’s his second year with the team, having transferred from a school down South directly back to New England, specifically seeking a spot on the Nor’easters. Here, he talks real-life a cappella dramatics, the truth about being on a reality show, and why being ‘aca-awesome’ isn’t really a thing.
What’s the competition really like between the Nor’easters and Pitch, Please?
We have six a cappella groups on campus at Northeastern. All of us compete in the same competition, so there is always an underlying competition between each group. Even if we’re doing a casual gig on campus, or if we’re competing against each other head-to-head, we’re always sizing each other up. We have been the most outwardly successful group on campus; we won the ICCA competition in 2013, and Pitch, Please made it to the semifinals a couple years ago. We are friends with girls in the group, it’s a friendly competition.
Why was your group, out of the hundreds of others across the country, picked to be on reality show?
As I mentioned, the Nor’easters won the 2013 ICCA competition, and the show is following the groups as they go through the tournament. That was a major draw. As they met us, they saw that we are a dynamic bunch—not to use a musical pun—and we got along great with the cast and production crew. It was really just a good fit. We had good chemistry all the way, and I think our group is very spunky and very fun. I think we are naturally a good fit for a TV show.
What about Pitch, Please?
The journey of Pitch, Please is actually pretty interesting. The group was formed out of girls who didn’t get into the Nor’easters, but also didn’t want to be in the other groups that are on campus. They wanted to do what we were doing, but in the form of female a cappella. With Pitch, Please’s origin being so closely related to ours comes more tension that you will see on the show. We do actually get to go head-to-head at the ICCAs this year.
I watched EW’s clip of your auditions. Is it really that cut-throat? It seems as hardcore as American Idol auditions.
We do have an extremely intense audition. It’s very intimidating coming from someone who had to audition. There’s a big panel, all on their computers typing out notes and corresponding electronically. We have them do additional tests on the spot: we test their musicality and their vocal range, and by asking, can you sing this song? It’s really intense. We’re a group that competes internationally, and we need to look at the details and vet out, as I said on the show, the amateurs from the Nor’easters. And that process does take a long time when you’re going from hundreds and hundreds of auditionees, and taking anywhere from two new people—from when I joined—to, you know, eight people this year.
What does the ICCA tournament look like structurally?
The best way that I can explain this: think of the March Madness tournament and substitute college basketball teams with collegiate a cappella groups. It’s a big bracket system, but for us, you have to apply and qualify that way to the ICCA competition. So there are hundreds of groups that apply and send in audition tapes, and then the best 300 of those groups are placed in the first round of the competition, which is called the quarter-final round. There are ten groups that compete in each quarter-final round, and there are dozens, and dozens in the quarter-final round across the globe.
What can you reveal about the true perks and struggles of being on a reality show? Is it really everything that Kris Jenner brags about?
Ha, well, Kris Jenner probably gets a lot more perks than we did, especially because the Kardashians are considered a reality show, and our show is actually a docu-series. The difference is, whatever you see on the show, we actually do. On a reality show they may stage a couple scenes to create drama. Our drama is plentiful. The TV crew just happens to be there to document it.
What does that mean for a shooting schedule?
We basically just let the production crew know when we’re about to do something. Like when we gave the new members makeovers, we filmed a little bit of that. I’m not sure if you’ll see that on the show, but before the ICCA…we all go shopping. I made one of the new people get his eyebrows threaded because they were out of control. That’s stuff that actually does happen, and we’ll just let the production crew know, hey we’re doing this.
What does it mean to be pitch-slapped?
Haha. I’m not really sure what you mean.
It’s a term I’ve notice, probably from Pitch Perfect, or something similar. I can infer that it must mean defeated?
I’m not sure. We don’t use that particular terminology. The stuff you see on Pitch Perfect is—
Well, the ‘aca-scuse me?’ That’s not something that I would necessarily ever say. It’s funny, originally when the a cappella community, so to speak, watched that movie, we kind of laughed at that. Then it became such a huge thing that we started using it half-jokingly. We have have our own lingo in our group that’s super weird itself, so I’m definitely not one to talk.
Oh, gosh. So we have different things that we call musical phrases. So we’ll say, use a little bit more ‘sex breath’ here. And that’s when add audible breathiness or caught off a note with a breath like aaaah. It adds a cool effect to the song and a sultriness to the vibe of the performance. You’ll see that on the show. Or like, I really want you to ‘screlp’ this part, which is a screamy belt. There are certain things where if you had no idea what a cappella was, and you walked into a rehearsal, you’d say, what?
Are these things used interchangeably between groups, or is this lingo specific to your group?
‘Sex breath’ we explain in the first episode a little bit. That’s kind of specific to the Nor’easters. But other musical terms are definitely interchangeable among the a cappella community. You know, ‘choreo’ as opposed to choreography. Little things like that. But I think every group does have their own set of unique words that they use.
Sing It On premieres May 13, Pop TV at 10 p.m. The Nor’easters will be live-tweeting, and will also be on Periscope live-streaming their viewing party. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.