UC San Diego Singers Hit
High Note at Country Music Awards
UCSD’s a capella group performs with Taylor Swift
Ioana Patringenaru | April 26, 2010
A group of UC San Diego students stood on an empty stage at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas during a dress rehearsal. They looked out at a sea of empty seats. That's when it finally sunk in: they were going to perform with hit country singer Taylor Swift during the Academy of Country Music Awards. The seats would then all be filled, many of them with well-known country music stars.
The Tritones, a campus a cappella group, were Swift’s back-up singers during the awards ceremony April 18. They got to sing at the event after producers saw a YouTube video of the group singing Swift’s hit, “You Belong With Me.” As an a cappella group, they perform without instruments, using only their voices.
After the curtain dropped, junior Lonny Cheuk, who is the group’s music director, said his mind was reeling as he was trying to make sense of what had just happened. To top it all off, Swift, who has sold millions of albums, made a point to hug students and thank them for their performance. She told them they were awesome.
“I thought she was awesome; we should be thanking her,” said Cheuk, who performed with 15 of his classmates that night.
They make up the Tritones, UCSD’s first a cappella group, originally founded in 1996. Last week, Cheuk, Teresa Souto, the group’s assistant director, and Nicholai Perez, the Tritones’ president, said they were still having trouble processing the whole experience.
When Perez received an e-mail asking him if the students wanted to take part at the Academy of Country Music Awards, he said he wondered if it was a hoax. Cheuk remembers thinking: “Taylor Swift, isn’t she famous?” Soon, it became clear this was no joke.
The Tritones even took part in a conference call with Swift, who was in Nashville. She wished them and their families a happy Easter. She also said she appreciated their taking the time to sing with her.
Students thought she was incredibly polite, Cheuk said. But Swift had a point. The logistics of getting all the Tritones, and some extra help, to Las Vegas for the equivalent of the Grammys for country music, turned out to be quite a feat.
First, the Tritones, which are made up of four sopranos, four altos, four tenors and four basses, needed to find another 14 performers, as Swift required a total of 30 back-up singers. So current group members reached out to alumni and recruited fellow a cappella singers from UCLA for the occasion.
Then there was the small matter of midterms. The group needed to be in Las Vegas on Wednesday, April 14 for the dress rehearsal. But many students had midterms the following day, April 15. Some chose to fly in for the day. Others drove roundtrip that same day.
That Friday, April 16, they all came back to get ready for the awards ceremony, which was taking place April 18. The Academy of Country Music wasn’t covering their travel expenses. So, the students car-pooled. They also rented a two-bedroom suite at the Luxor, Las Vegas’ pyramid-shaped hotel, where everyone slept. It did get a little crazy, Perez acknowledged. They had to set limits on the amount of time each person could use the bathroom.
The venue at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas was filled to the brim.
The Tritones are used to this kind of juggling act. The group’s members usually carry a full load of classes, go to rehearsals, work part-time jobs and complete all their projects and assignments. During a typical week, they rehearse twice, for a total of six hours. If they have a competition coming up, they’ll put in 12 to 16 hours. “You have to be able to deal with stress really well,” Cheuk said. The group lost track of how much they rehearsed to prepare for their Las Vegas appearance.
That Sunday, wearing T-shirts and shirts in warm colors, as instructed, the students stood behind Swift as they sang “Change,” one of her recent hits. They swayed their arms as she did. They focused on being the best back-up singers Swift ever performed with. Tens of thousands in the audience cheered and clapped during the performance. Swift then met the group backstage and gave them hugs. “She was really sweet,” Perez said.
“She seemed very genuine,” added Cheuk. “She seemed very modest.”
Meanwhile, the students’ parents and relatives were literally jumping up and down on their couches at home as they watched the awards ceremony on television. “My mom went crazy,” Souto jokes. In addition to calling Souto every other day before the awards, her mother invited the whole family to watch the ceremony at her home.
Cheuk’s mother complained that she couldn’t see him well for most of the performance. Perez’s mother called his cousins, who live all over the nation, including Hawaii, New Jersey and Nevada. After the performance was over, he got inundated with text messages.
The performance was the culmination of an exciting year for the Tritones. In addition to performing on campus, the group has taken part in inter-collegiate competitions, which include universities throughout the nation, Canada and the United Kingdom.
They sing a wide range of pieces, from classical choir, to jazz, to pop and now country music. The goal is to reach out to the audience’s different tastes in music, Perez said. The Tritones themselves have eclectic tastes. Cheuk is a Beatles fan, among others. Perez likes Michael Jackson, Alicia Keys and Frank Sinatra.
They also had varied levels of skills before joining the group. Souto liked singing ever since she was a little girl. She started private vocal lessons in seventh grade. She then joined her high school choir and took part in shows.
Students pose before their performance at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
Cheuk took a liking to singing his senior year in high school. It’s nice to express feelings with your voice instead of instruments, he said. Before joining the Tritones, Perez’s singing experience was limited to singing in his car—and in the shower. All three said they find the group has provided them with social connections on campus.
“It’s become a family to us,” said Cheuk. “We haven’t gotten sick of each other yet.”
Though none of them plans to pursue music as a career, they said they hope their appearance with Swift will raise the Tritones’ profile. They’ve already been deluged with Facebook updates and YouTube comments. They also have appeared on local television and radio stations. Perhaps some bigger gigs will follow, said Perez, who is in charge of booking the band. He seems to have learned at least one show business lesson.
“My phone is always on,” he said.