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i-Tunes a cappella looks back on their pandemic experience

By Kevin Horinbrook 
Staff Writer

When the a cappella group i-Tunes took the stage for their annual winter concert in 2019, they went through the usual motions of dazzling the crowd with their vocal prowess, celebrating together and posting a video to their YouTube channel. None of the 20 members imagined it would be their last performance for over a year.

As the anniversary of the College sending students home last March passes, i-Tunes, short for International Tunes, is at a point where they can look back on their own unique journey through quarantine. 

Back on Dec. 7th, 2019, the day of their last winter concert, Covid-19 was far from the household name it has become. With hardly a handful of cases in the Western Hemisphere, the level of concern was nothing to make schools consider shutting down, governments to consider lockdowns or i-Tunes to consider a farewell performance. When the pandemic finally did begin to impact the College, senior communications major and i-Tunes E-Board President Eunice Olugbile felt blindsided.

(Photo courtesy of i-Tunes a cappella)

“We were already learning our spring concert setlist, learning Daft Punk and ‘Everybody Talks’ then when things were shutting down in March that’s when we learned that we weren’t gonna be returning,” said Olugbile, who was a junior at the time of the initial wave of the pandemic. “It was really actually sad to realize we weren’t going to sing with the seniors for the last time, and then finding out that that was going to be the last time that seniors now, like me, would ever perform again.”

Sophomore early childhood education and english major Alex Vargas was also naturally disappointed. 

“My heart was like, ‘you gotta be kidding me,’” she said. “I had just had an entire fall where I had enjoyed performing all different places, getting to know the group, and I was looking forward to the spring, and it was taken away from us.”

The group had followed their usual schedule for years, with one concert each semester in the Mayo Concert Hall and a more casual “i-Cabaret” or i-Cab in the fall. None of the events had trouble filling seats, with the concerts being free to attend and the i-Cab occupying the smaller and more personal venue of the Gitenstein Library Auditorium. Aside from their concerts there were other performances shared with fellow acapella groups at the College, trips to perform at other schools such as Temple University and the University of Delaware, and a frequent rehearsal routine. Meeting for two-hour rehearsals at least twice a week and spending lots of time together beyond practice made the group close friends, so the news that they had to stay separated for an extended period of time stung especially hard.

“We have been so used to seeing each other… probably every single day on campus, so from doing that to not seeing each other at all was really crazy,” said Olugbile. “I feel like any student at TCNJ felt that way, anyone in an organization felt that way.”

The early weeks of quarantine saw the group try a myriad of methods to stay in touch, including regular Zoom calls, a night where members created and shared funny powerpoint presentations, and sessions of the video game Among Us. The separation didn’t stop their constant communication in their group chat on Snapchat. They were doing as much as they could to fill “a void,” as Olugbile called it, but their tightly-knit relationship made it hard to still feel the same. 

“We probably are the most family-like organization, people always say ‘oh you guys get along so well!” noted Vargas, and replicating a schedule to keep a family feeling like a family is no easy task. 

Of course, the show must go on. i-Tunes still needed to prepare for the coming year, pandemic or not. Gone was the usual procedure for finding new singers and welcoming them to the group, along with the simple method of in-person auditions.

“It was crazy, it’s not the same as walking into an audition room with those nerves when you can record a video like 40 times,” said Vargas. She felt this process was a lot harder with the number of people auditioning drastically lower and the time spent listening to auditions even higher. 

Vargas became Publicity Chair of the group’s E-Board, Olugbile’s former position, for the 2020-21 academic year, putting her in charge of social media accounts. She was tasked with upping their visibility since they were without usual events that would advertise their organization. Between a new Tik Tok account, a lively Instagram page, and, eventually, a revival of their YouTube channel, i-Tunes has a steady online presence with thousands of people keeping up.

“Our Tik Toks do pretty well, we had one with almost 5,000 views when we just started the account,” said Vargas. “Our Instagram gets a lot of love from people on campus too.”

Their Instagram, handle “tcnjitunes,” is a bright display of the group’s togetherness and a documentation of their activities, events and talent. Posts range from profiles on the members to news on important dates to screencaps from Zoom calls to the occasional meme. Members can be seen flashing the i-Tunes hand symbol, made by combining the letters i and t in American Sign Language. The Instagram joined in on social justice movements, sending out posts sharing the connections between Black history and a cappella music and fundraising for the Philadelphia Community Bail fund NAACP Defense and Educational Fund.

“Not to brag, but our group is the one with the most followers out of all the singing groups, so, that’s a little humble brag,” joked Vargas. i-Tunes has a good relationship with other groups like The Trentones and The Treblemakers, and always looks to support them in shared performances, other concerts and beyond. They keep a close relationship with Temple’s Broad Street Line as well, a group Olugbile called i-Tunes’ “significant other.”

In their efforts to keep the group in singing shape, i-Tunes pushed for some outdoor performances this semester, but unfortunately the virus continued to surge and guidelines never made room for it. There was also the difficulty of the group being so far apart. The members live all across New Jersey, one of them in New York, so organizing any in-person meet up was a huge challenge.

But, instead of sitting back and waiting to sing again, they’re making their own virtual performance, a rendition of the previously shelved Daft Punk medley arranged by famous a cappella group Pentatonix. The group is envisioning a final product that looks like a Zoom call, with a grid of videos stitched together with some editing help from Lions Television.

(Photo courtesy of i-Tunes a cappella)

The members are used to feeding off the crowd’s energy and having an animated stage presence. They can play off of each other as well, taking visual and auditory cues as they get their entire body into singing. Not having each other around while filming their parts is definitely a new challenge, but one that makes such a performance all the more impressive. 

“When we’re on stage, it kind of feels like… God, it’s been so long, I feel like I’ve forgotten the feeling,” said Olugbile, struggling to capture the right emotion. “It kinda sucks because I love that feeling of being with people I love, being with family and doing something we all love together on stage.”

Once the group finally does make it through that light at the end of the tunnel, things likely won’t be the same. The future is certainly uncertain everywhere impacted by the pandemic. i-Tunes is cautious but optimistic about what is to come.

“We’re a singing group, you know, you need to take your mask off to be heard clearly… We just don’t know, it’s one of those things where you can’t have an auditorium packed anymore,” said Vargas. “Things are probably going to be different.”

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