Dartmouth Decibelles...or Distractions

by Carolyn Zhou | 5/3/16 5:07pm

The Decibelles are the College's oldest all-female a cappella group

In 1972, Dartmouth began accepting women. Once women arrived on campus, they not only immersed themselves into academic life, but also got involved in activities outside of the classroom. When they discovered that they could not join certain clubs, they created their own outlets for creativity. Jody Hill Simpson ’74 was one such trailblazer.

Since women were not allowed to join the Dartmouth Glee Club in the early ’70s, Simpson, along with another student, began Dartmouth’s first ever all female a cappella group, with the tongue-in-cheek name, “The Dartmouth Distractions.” Ostensibly, this was a humorous name in reference to women being “distracting” to men. The group had since changed their name to "The Dartmouth Woodswind," and then in theearly '80s they adopted theircurrent name,The Decibelles. Various members of the Decibelles from different year, including Margaret Paredez ’96, Jessie Ward ’04, Jenny Toyohara ’00, Jennifer Hole ’97, Kate McGee ‘01, Lani Curtis ‘98 and current Decibelle Tricia Yeonas ’19 commented on how important the group was in shaping their Dartmouth experiences.

One of Paredez’s favorite parts about singing for the group was the unique sense of community.

“It was like having a team without playing a sport,” she recalled.

Toyohara agreed. “That group of women functioned like a little sorority for me,” she said.

Curtis believes that it provided a calmness to Dartmouth’s fast and ever changing environment.

“With Dartmouth’s D-Plan and quarter system, Decibelles was the most consistent thing about my college experience over the course of four years,” Curtis said.

Although Paredez only joined her senior year, she felt like singing for the group was one of the highlights of her college experience.

“Everyone finds a place. There isn’t a huge competition for solos or anything like that. We find songs to fit people’s voices, not the other way around. There was diversity in voice and in culture,” Paredez said.

She noted the group gave her the opportunity to record a full-length album out of town, in the middle of winter, escaping out of Hanover for a while.

Ward echoed those sentiments, recalling her own recording experience. She described recording ‘Vintage’ (2001) during her freshman year, which was the last album the group made the old-fashioned way, on tape, at a studio in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Ward, at Dartmouth almost a decade later than Paredez, directly experienced the modernization of the recording studio. By her senior year, when the group recorded another album, “Platinum,” (2004) the group made the switch to digital recording.

Ward, as musical director during her junior and senior years, was heavily involved with the production of the album.

“I loved getting into the booth and recording extra percussion tracks and harmonies to add to the richness of the sound,” she remembered.

In contrast, one of Toyohara’s strongest memories of recording the album actually wasn’t in the studio. She and a friend were driving back from a day of mixing at the studio, singing along with the recording, when a police car pulled them over for speeding. She gave the cop the tape so that he could listen to it while he recorded their information, and he let them off with only a warning.

Toyohara prefers the memories of making the album over the actual product itself.

“Interestingly, I never listen to it, because although I love hearing all those songs again, I hear the same little mistakes every time I listen. Every single little note that I knew wasn’t quite right or little blips in timing ­— that’s all I hear. I prefer the memory of it more,” she said.

The process of recording was long and difficult, especially in the late ’90s, recalled Hole; it often took around five separate eight-hour long sessions to complete a majority of the album. They also had to work around people’s D-Plans. Although album production was no easy task, it was worth it. The group at the time hired Deke Sharon, known for arranging the songs in the “Pitch Perfect” franchise and bringing a cappella to the forefront of American culture. At the time, he arranged a few songs for them for the relatively cheap price of $100 per song.

“Some of our songs at the time, like ‘King of Pain,’ were amazing arrangements with like six part harmony, really cool, but were pretty tough to pull off,” she said.

McGee felt the benefits of recording in the studio were significant.

“We also could make our songs much more professional and interesting thanks to remixing/editing and being able to have 30 vocal tracks on a recorded song, versus the 12 to 15 of us when we performed in person. So that was fun and rewarding — capturing the best versions of our voices on the recordings.

Beyond recording, The Decibelles have several trademarks and traditions that make them unique.

Ward mentioned dress up parties which seem to be in the same vein of many groups’ current use of flair: “We’d put on completely wacky and wild clothes and dance.”

According to Ward, “The Rockapellas were known for singing ‘freedom songs’ and being more diverse and feminist. After one particularly distasteful Greek-related incident, the Rocks stopped singing at frats and sororities entirely. [In contrast,] Greek shows were a big part of the Decis roster at the time. We sang at a frat or sorority almost every Wednesday night.”

During Ward’s college years, the Decibelles were known for their pop song repertoire, fun choreography and the fact that there were many blondes in their group. In fact, they named one of their albums “Platinum” as a nod to this reputation.

Although this reputation may not remain, one tradition that has survived is the “passing the squeeze” before any concert, as Toyohara called it. Yeonas also mentioned this.

“We’re in a circle, and we link hands, and one person initiates the routine by squeezing the next person’s hands, and a pulse is sent around the circle, and then we shake our hands and feet out. It’s about loosening up, and getting pumped before a show,” Yeonas explained.

Another tradition that has faded away is the comedic mini skits the Decibelles put on during the breaks between shows.

“They were called ‘intros.’ Some of them were pretty terrible, but some of them were great,” Holes said. “The audience loved them, and I loved working on these — when they were funny! It was fun to have the chance to be comical as well as musical.”

McGee mentioned another comedic aspect of the Decibelles reputation on campus.

“Apparently our dance moves were atrocious. My husband — a ’02 Cord still makes fun of our ‘Deci-bop’ which was like bending our knees and bopping along to our songs while singing.”

Lastly, the tradition of singing the song, “Take it to the Limit” has remained. Yeonas, a freshman currently, mentioned that singing the classic is emotional, but fun.

Curtis explained the point of having a song that is passed from generation to generation.

“We also have ‘group songs’ that we pass down every year. I can get together with Decibelles of any age and sing ‘Take it to the Limit’ or ‘Southern Cross.’ They transcend time,” she said.

Ward recounted that her most emotional moment of singing for the Decibelles was singing “Take it to the Limit” for the last time at Senior Sing Out right before graduation.

“From the first few bars, I was blubbering like a hurricane. I sobbed so hard I could barely sing,” she said. “It was the end of something that was incredibly special to me.”

Although these reputations and traditions may or may not differ greatly from how the Decibelles are now, one thing is definitely constant: the unique experience of singing for an a cappella group and becoming close to that group.

McGee’s favorite part of the group was “hav[ing] a group of women to lean on — in a non-social or non-academic context; that’s special and unique. I’m so grateful for this group that shaped my college years and who I have become today.”

Many of the alumni interviewed expressed that they still keep in touch with their fellow Decibelles.

Toyohara mentioned that she lived in Boston for a while with a Decibelle, and many Decibelles were at her wedding. Hole also has kept in touch with the group and is planning on staying with two Decibelles this summer during her family road trip.

Ward said that although the Decibelles are no longer physically together and are living in various parts of the country, social media platforms like Facebook allow them to keep in touch, at least peripherally.

The bonds of friendship are not the only things that have remained; the Decibelles love of music has persisted as well.

“My sister and my two cousins were also in all-female a cappella groups, and we occasionally perform at family weddings and parties,” said Ward when asked if she still is involved with anything musical.

Toyohara mentioned her desire to find a similar experience again.

“I actually think about doing something again all the time. I am an avid shower singer. When my boys are a little older and I can find more time, I would definitely like to find an outlet somewhere.”

Both Hole and McGee sing to their kids.

McGee said, “I sang with the Oratorio Society of New York for 10 years but stopped when career and family took over. Now my singing amounts to nightly renditions of Darth Vader’s entrance music from ‘Star Wars’ for my four-year-old son or the soundtrack of ‘Mulan’ for my girls.”

Curtis volunteers at her sons’ school to promote music and drama education.

“These things have so much value to our souls, and not enough focus in our state-funded schools. Our kids need the arts!”

Paredez agreed with Curtis; she said that she has encouraged her children to sing at school and at church.

“It’s something that you can do your whole life. You can always keep your voice strong. It brings you joy.”

Correction Appended: (May 4, 2016)

The original version of this article stated that the former name for the Dartmouth Decibelles was "The Distractions ." In fact, the group was also called "The Dartmouth Woodswind" until the early 1980s.