(Twitter’s Songbirds. photo: Carla Bova)
It began like any other concert: The house lights dimmed. A hush came over the audience before it erupted into excited applause. A foggy haze wafted from stage right, enveloping four standing mics. Spotlights brightened to beckon the opening act on stage.
It was a setup for rock stars, and the 13 singers who made their entrance seemed right at home. They were the a cappella stars of Square, the mobile payment tech company.
The group, called The Square Registers, belted out its first number, “Take Me Home,” with soft harmonies and a single member snapping to keep time. Performers hit their marks throughout the three-song gig. Well done for the demure group that is one year old and a new participant in Techapella.
Techapella, now in its fourth year, is a singing showcase featuring a who’s who of a cappella ensembles from the Bay Area’s most influential tech giants. It unites the industry through a shared love of music and artistic expression in a non-competitive environment.
Square’s The Square Registers
“(They are) providing innovative technology and ideas by day and singing their hearts out by night,” said David Stull, president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which hosted Techapella this year.
The early December show at The Curran in San Francisco displayed characteristics for which techies are best known — ingenuity, preparation, and propensity to work in teams.
“It really does take a lot of time and commitment,” said James Huang, a baritone singer with LinkedIn. The 19 members of InTune practice once a week and go to lengths to select just the right songs. “We are very much in tune in terms of what our soloists are capable of doing because we never want them to sing a song that is out of their range or that they are uncomfortable with.”
The event also displayed a side of tech employees we don’t often get to see, their musical side. Members of the seven groups were playful and their joy in singing was evident in every doo-wop and nah nah. Their personalities, as diverse as the companies they represent, shone through beat boxing bits, backup arrangements and song selections which ranged from pop hits to Broadway numbers to Christmas carols.
Dropbox’s Syncopation performed a soulful rendition of “Put Your Records On” by Corinne Bailey Rae and the solemn “Let It Go” by James Bay before making the audience smile with a medley of theme songs from PBS children’s shows, including nods to Carmen Sandiego, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and the undeniable highlight, Reading Rainbow.
LinkedIn stole the show twice over. First, InTune performed a mashup that centered around “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” With much humor, the group wove one-liners from classic holiday songs throughout. You really had to hear it, but it went something very roughly like this: “On the first day of Christmas / You better not cry. Better not pout / Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green / Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer/ Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel / On the twelfth day of Christmas / As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”
Wait. Was that “Africa” by Toto? Did they just blend an ’80s hit into a Christmas mashup? They did. And it was seamless, funny and impressive — a well-placed musical Easter egg.
Then InTune continued on high with soprano Mary Markarian’s solo of “Mercy” by Welsh singer Duffy. Spectacular.
“That is an arrangement that we wanted to perform really just to show off our musical chops,” Googapella alto Lindsay Alford said before the show. “It is not necessarily one that is going to get people up on their feet but we hope it is one that showcases the talent of the group.”
Googapella’s 21 members practice twice a week in one of Google’s dedicated music rooms, a benefit Alford said is a “natural extension” of her company’s perks.
“They have food. They have game rooms. And Google provides physical space for us to practice,” Alford said. “On top of that, they provide the ability for employees to take time to do something they love, like sing music. It is so accepted that you take the time you need to do something to keep you invigorated both in your personal life and in your work life.”
Aaron Roan formally founded Googapella in 2011. The group lost member Laolee Xiong when he left Google to work for Facebook. With no a cappella group at Facebook, Xiong formed The Vocal Network. The two groups held a joint concert in 2013, the first Techapella.
“It was just Google and Facebook performing together as a way to sing with our friend who we had lost to a different career,” Alford said. “We missed him and wanted an opportunity to collaborate with him and his group.”
Techapella has grown since then, with more and more tech firms inspired to form their own a cappella groups. Within each company, the bonding activity promotes employee creativity, fosters friendships among coworkers, and improves communication across departments. There are singing engineers, software developers, marketers, accountants.
On a large scale, the event promotes the arts and industry collaboration. For the performance finale, the seven companies with more than 100 singers, came together as one group to sing “Cake By the Ocean” by DNCE.
Facebook’s The Vocal Network
Part of the buzz at the show was the grandeur of The Curran, which recently completed an extensive renovation from new carpeting to fresh wall stenciling. It’s nearly 100-year-old chandelier was dismantled and refurbished.
“Every single thing is completely renovated — the ceiling, the light fixtures, this marble (counter), the bathrooms, the seats, the bars. Nothing has not been renovated,” said Abby McLoughlin, senior marketing manager of The Curran. “There were people on the ceiling cleaning decades of tobacco and then painting.”
The venue also launched its “Art Loves Tech” initiative.
“It is imperative that this is a cultural hub,” McLoughlin said. “It is important to be connecting with the San Francisco community, including the tech community, and to have programming that is innovative and transformative.”
Techapella was a perfect start in bringing The Curran’s initiative to life.