Student musicians from the a cappella group Broad Street Line can describe President Barack Obama’s singing voice after hearing it in person on Monday, Dec. 16.
Broad Street Line’s president, junior music education major Ryan Carlin, applied for the opportunity for the group to sing at the White House this past August. He said he’d known of the application since his high school’s efforts to participate. His efforts to get involved were supported by Student Activities staff member Adriane Reilly, who sent an invite to the group in early September, though Carlin had already applied.
About six weeks ago, Carlin said he received a call from the White House asking if Broad Street Line would be interested in performing on Dec. 16. The singing slot was not guaranteed, the White House spokesperson informed Carlin, but group members jumped at the chance regardless.
“I don’t think anyone thought we’d turn down this opportunity,” Carlin said.
Thrilled to have a chance to sing at the White House for the holidays, Broad Street Line faced a major challenge in order to be prepared. Not only did the group have a major concert coming up, they had to learn several knew songs in a much shorter time frame then members are accustomed to.
They prepared 17 songs initially and settled on 15 to perform, including their own arrangements of “Christmas Song” and “White Christmas.”
“It was a pretty intense rehearsal process,” Carlin said. “We only had seven minutes to rehearse each song just to get through everything in a rehearsal. I was very surprised by all the guys, everyone was reading and everyone’s musicianship really showed heavy. We’ve got some guys who aren’t music majors, some who even can’t read music, so I was just very impressed by everyone’s hard work.”
Broad Street Line secretary Mack Meyer, who participated in arranging the music prepared for the White House performance along with Carlin and three other members, agreed that the effort of the group was clear.
“I was really impressed by everyone,” the sophomore music education/voice major said. “I knew we were good musicians as a group, but I didn’t realize how much we [each] knew about music until this gig. We showed our ability to learn to music so quickly.”
He also noted that many of the Broad Street Line musicians are most familiar with a cappella style singing, which differs from choral singing in terms of pronunciation of vowels and syllables and the type of harmonization. For this performance, however, some choral singing was necessary, since many holiday-themed songs are traditionally sung in a choral arrangement.
Three major rehearsals during finals week were all Broad Street Line had time for in preparation for the White House performance, the last one on Sunday, Dec. 15, just the day before.
Carlin recalled the moment when it appeared the group’s hopes would be dashed: a call from the White House correspondent, the day before their planned visit, informing him that due to a location change for Broad Street Line’s intended audience, a senior White House staff dinner, the group no longer had an available slot to sing.
He said he refused to accept the news, insisting that after their hard work they be given the chance to perform. Luckily, several hours later, the White House had managed to find a new option for the group.
No one, however, anticipated a performance in front of the president himself.
It wasn’t until a White House intern, who gave Broad Street Line members a tour of historic grounds before stationing them for their planned performance, mentioned that if they waited a couple of hours, they could meet the president.
“The group just went wild,” Carlin said. “I think that was second only under meeting the president.”
The intern also informed the singers that they would have about a minute to sing for President Obama. This required immediate adjustment of one of their prepared songs so that it would fit the time constraint.
The members settled on Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” and spent the time they had to wait between their planned performance and the spontaneous chance arranging a minute-long version. Excitement was high, Carlin recalled.
“People were walking around practicing their handshakes, making sure [they] were ready for the president,” he said.
When the time came, the group was lead into the Red Room of the White House, where they were prepared for a photo shoot that would include President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
“He and Michelle walked in holding hands and he said ‘These must be our boys from Philly,’” Carlin said of the moment President Obama entered the room. “He went around and shook everyone’s hands, asked us our names, and thanked us for coming. A few of us snagged hugs from Michelle Obama.”
The performance went off without a hitch, members said. In fact, as Meyer said, it was particularly successful.
“We’ve never sounded so good, because everyone was so pumped up on energy and so excited,” he said.
When the singers came to the chorus, the president began to sing along, members said. Meyer noted that he had a “good singing voice” and the group was even surprised by President Obama’s own rendition of Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” when they’d finished their piece. Members described the president as “personable” and remembered him cracking jokes as he introduced himself.
Carlin called the experience very important to group morale – it’s something that will only motivate the group to improve and strive for more, he said.
“Whenever we’re in a slump, it’s [going to] be like, ‘Hey guys, remember how committed we were when we sang for the president? Let’s treat this next performance like we’re singing for the president’,” Carlin said. “We can always bring that in, it’s always going to be a real analogy for us to identify with.”
After what Meyer called “a great way to cap off a crazy semester,” Broad Street Line plans to increase their recording efforts and keep performing in Philadelphia.
Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @erinJustineET.