The first semester of school has been ending, and we’ve all been getting an average of 3.5 hours of sleep per night. The school bookstore has been making a killing selling iced lattes and diet Cokes the last couple of weeks. But I’m betting you already know what it’s like to be cramming how to graph the minimum area of a circle or finding the mass percentage of inert materials in Maalox, an antacid. (It’s 15.1%, for anyone who cares.) So I will not go down that glorious tangent.
Instead, I’m going to talk about Buttondowns. Yes, capital “B,” not the type of shirt you wear to church or temple. It’s the name of a men’s a cappella choral group at my school. A selective men’s a cappella group, as the head of the music department likes to brand it. I auditioned for it this fall, and by the grace of God, I made it in as a bass.
Buttondowns is a well-known group in my school, and in the realm of established Pingry clubs, it’s one of the greats. The faculty advisor has a Ph.D. from Juilliard, and he is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met. He can sit down to play something he’s never laid eyes on before, and you would think he’d spent the last month practicing. I remember walking into my audition, handing him my music, and feeling like I was singing for the man who wrote the song. He’s also a funny, caring advisor and teacher to the boys of the group, and there is many a story, perhaps apocryphal, about him making a call or two to land one of his former singers a spot on one of the esteemed Ivy League a capella clubs. My mom has repeatedly said that he “is a blessing to the school”.
One of the fun parts of being a Buttondown is the annual 15-minute Buttondowns movie that we write, act, and produce. We spend months filming this thing, and, while the seniors lead the effort, it’s beyond awesome to have the privilege of skipping class and essentially doing whatever we want around the school under the aegis of "filming" for forty-five minutes a day throughout the fall. (See link for movie below.) The movie was played in front of the school while the student body was seated in the main auditorium, and it directly preceded our fall concert, known as the “Buttondowns Assembly”. The movie gets everybody involved, and cast members include the assistant headmaster, who sells the Buttondowns to MTV, the director of the Upper School taking bribes, and two of the senior boys “hooking up” on camera. Shooting the short film is a several-month long process, which culminates in the whole school watching it together during assembly. We get away with off-the-wall, otherwise-forbidden stuff because if nothing else, we know how to sing in Latin with a straight face.
And the school actually seems to like us. To give a bit of reference, I’m on the school newspaper and the water polo team. Throughout the water polo season, most of the school either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that we exist, and the water polo scoreboard hasn’t worked right in decades, if ever. As for the paper, a handful of teachers, Pingry visitors, and alumni may read it, but it’s not clear that any students do much with their copies except crumple them into balls and throw them at each other. The Buttondowns have a different rep. Everyone knows who we are, and most are happy to see us coming.
The group sings a wide variety of songs, but, basically, we have two types of music in the repertoire. One, which I call the Church List, is comprised of hymns and Christian holiday songs. Occasionally, a more serious secular one is thrown in here, but generally, this list features songs like, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Jubilate Deo,” and other Latin songs so painful to sing and memorize that I feel no need to mention them here (mostly because I don’t remember what they are).
The other set list we have I call the Fun List. This list contains a wider range of songs, like “Everybody Talks ” by Neon Trees, “Some Nights” by fun., and “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift. These are the songs that the Pingry kids like to hear.
Something I’m sure my Jewish readers and family members will note is the decidedly Christian influence on the group. It’s not that we choose to sing Bible-related songs, but most of our out-of-school performances take place in churches because our music director has a part time job at one, and obviously the type of music to bring to a church is the music that is sung in church. Thus brings up the questions, “Why not do more secular extra-curricular performances?” “Why not sing at temples? Or mosques?” Hell if I know. We do sometimes sing at other schools, where we dabble in both set lists, but generally it’s one or the other.
I will acknowledge that it’s taken a while for the former bar mitzvah kid in me to get comfortable singing about Christ The Lord and whatnot. But what I’ve concluded is that if you’re going to be a performer, you’ve got to get comfortable performing a wide range of pieces in a wide range of venues, from street corners and churches to recording studios and Carnegie Hall.
We may spend half our waking hours singing in churches, but our musical director is a great guy who rarely says “no” to our ideas and lets us have fun. He is a great civilizing influence on us because he forces us to be well-behaved young men who dress in coat and tie and sing in church, but he also lets us relax and screw around during rehearsals, where our inner teenage ids can let loose. And by letting us go to both extremes, our musical director elicits the best from us.
That said, there are times when we end up being the opposite of buttoned-down. There is a female equivalent to the Buttondowns, called the Balladeers. They practice hard and give great performances and are always serious and composed. You can tell their rehearsals never get out of hand; they always know their parts, and their assigned soloists never forget the lyrics to the final chorus (not that this has, ahem, ever happened to us). Our director lets us be teenage guys, meaning we writhe, charm, perch on audience members' seats, occasionally make inappropiate eye contact, and, when prompted, sing our hearts out. Sometimes we go too far, but we always put on a good show.
To put it simply, we are a band of talented misfits, the older of whom watch the younger ones’ backs. This fall, I got to catch up with one senior who I met in my French class last year. The senior, whom I will call Jason, is a leader of the Buttondowns and a very talented guy. Before I joined the crew, he probably just thought of me as the noisy kid in French. Now, when he sees me talking to a girl, he’ll yell, “Fromm’s mackin!” which doesn’t exactly warm my heart, but he’s a good guy see if I ever need to ask a question so stupid I’m embarrassed to bring it anyone outside my friend group. Would my relationship with him have kept up if I weren’t a Buttondown? Doubtful.
To be honest, I can’t do the whole B-downs experience justice with just a keyboard and a blank page. This is a group of guys that knows how to perform and have fun while doing it. And sometimes we even make money.
Every year, the Buttondowns and Balladeers organize the “Serenades,” a period of two or three weeks around Valentine’s Day where we let the Pingry community determine the details of our performances, with love songs as the theme. Before the Serenades period begins, we hand out flyers to the school with a list of songs on it, but we also take special requests. Anybody in the school can select a song, choose which student, teacher or staff member we sing that song to, and then decide where we sing the piece. The best part: We get to call this a fundraiser. We charge $5 per performance, and the money goes towards a very worthy cause: The Buttondowns Foundation, which funds our end-of-year party and other miscellaneous expenses. This year, my friend Kennan wanted the Buttondowns to sing “Scream” by Usher to his girlfriend while she sat through AP US History. We were happy to skip part of our fifth period classes and hike over to the history wing for a quick show. The AP US History teacher wasn’t thrilled that a group of guys could invade his classroom and start belting out in song to some random student, but my friend’s girlfriend loved it. And news of the Serenades gets around; most of the time, someone whips out an iPhone and films the performance before uploading it to Facebook. We get a lot of likes.
In one recent scenario, a student decided to order the head of the Math department a Serenade while he was in the middle of a BC Calculus lecture. After watching us enter, the teacher smacked his head and groaned, “I wanted the girls! Not you people.”
We sang to him anyway. And then Jason rubbed his tummy.
(The movie link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtcx2sYNlyA)