Ten years ago, in a city still reeling from the devastating events of 9/11, a group of women seeking comfort and fellowship came together to harness the healing power of music. These ladies, varying in age, background and employment, shared a common bond through both their statuses as alumnus of the colleges of the Seven Sisters and their love of contemporary a cappella music. Thus, in New York City, in 2001, The MetropoliTONES were born.
Over the next decade, what began as a casual singing group eventually morphed into a semi-professional, award-winning, vocal music force. Early this year, they joined CASA as an official group and had their debut CAL performance at VoCALNation in March.
Now celebrating their 10th anniversary, the eight women of “The Tones,” as they refer to themselves, continue to make their mark on both the New York City music scene and the a cappella community at large, while still upholding the legacy of the Seven Sisters colleges.
As with most groups, however, the journey to become an established, cohesive unit was not always effortless. The group has certainly had its share of growing pains. At the time of founding, The Tones were a “come one, come all-style” bunch that accepted any Seven Sisters graduate. With time, though, it became clear that, in order to advance to the next level of performance, sweeping changes were needed.
In 2002, the group voted to switch to an audition-only format, meaning that even some founding members would have to audition (and possibly be eligible for elimination.) Although the decision was arrived at in a democratic manner, the results splintered the group into several factions and left even some of the longest-standing members without enough audition points to make the cut.
“It was a little awkward…some people actually had to leave the group because they didn’t meet the minimum point scale,” recalls Wellesley Tupelos alum and now-business manager, Lisa Bianco.
With a freshly-trimmed roster chock-full of raw talent, the MetropoliTONES were able to dive into the NYC music circuit and began gigging at a wide range of venues around the city. Abigail Wolff, artistic co-director (along with Dana van Brunt) and former member of Mount Holyoke’s V-8, credits the increased exposure to their Business Director.
“What really kick-started our getting out in the world was when Lisa Bianco took over,” gushes Wolff. “She is a real go-getter, she’s very passionate about the group, and she works very hard at getting us amazing gigs.” For example, in January 2010, the women sang the National Anthem at Giants Stadium for the last Jets game before it was torn down.
“It was amazing to hear that huge echo, the roar of the crowds, the fireworks going off – it was really humbling and an honor to sing there,” Wolff recounts.
Former Vassar Night Owl, Eliza Ruth Watson, names the group’s performance at the “Fifty and Fabulous” benefit at the Pierre Hotel, with Dr. Ruth Westheimer in attendance, as the standout in her mind.
“I think at that moment, I just profoundly felt like we were starting to go places and it was really exciting,” Watson remembers.
In addition to singing “The Star Spangled Banner” for the Jets, Devils, Red Bulls and Knicks, The MetropliTONES have also performed at many premiere New York venues including The TriBeCa Performing Arts Center, The Bitter End and The Metropolitan Room. The ladies also enjoy volunteering their talent for community events such as the Avon Breast Cancer Walk and Lifebeat’s “Hearts and Voices” Program.
“It’s always very moving because it’s just a reminder that here are these people that are faced with very serious illness and they’re often our best audiences. They’re smiling, they’re clapping, they’re dancing, they’re cheering, they’re enjoying every moment,” says Bianco. “Bringing smiles and joy and music to people who need it most – that’s what music is really about.”
With such a varied gig rotation, The Tones need to be thoroughly prepared with a vast repertoire that covers a range of genres and eras. Music Director Allison Lee (Vassar Night Owls,) has played an enormous part in this.
“When Allison took over as Musical Director in 2007, the group really took a leap in quality. She’s an amazing musician and does a lot of our arrangements,” Wolff reveals.
Lee utilizes several strategies to set the group up for success. For example, she likes to choose songs for her soloists, rather than assigning soloists after songs are picked for a better musical fit. By taking the entire group to karaoke night, she is able to get a sense of the styles and artists that each woman is adept at covering. In addition, the group members hear each other sing in a non-threatening environment and camaraderie is established in the social setting.
When arranging music, rather than re-writing the bass line to achieve the lowest possible note in the chord, Lee keeps it simple by sticking to the bass of original performance to avoid the common ensemble pitfalls of all-female groups. In addition, she attempts to weight voices toward the bottom of the staff to keep the group’s sound warm and full. Encouraging the women to sing a little “rough” and not too pretty is another trick she utilizes.
Lee’s practices certainly paid off at 2011’s New York City Harmony Sweepstakes, where her rendition of “Empire State of Mind” took the award for best arrangement. The win was especially poignant for The Tones, as the song had become the group’s signature piece.
With their confidence levels soaring, The MetropoliTONES threw their hat into the ring for a coveted performance spot in the Music Under New York Program (MUNY) in May. They were selected as one of about a dozen groups from a pool of hundreds that will have the opportunity to “present quality music to the commuting public,” according to the program’s website. MUNY schedules more than 100 soloists and groups to provide over 150 weekly performances at 25 locations throughout the city’s transit system.
Now, fresh off their Sweeps nod and their selection for MUNY, the MetropoliTONES have no place to go but up. After releasing their third album, “Time for a Breakdown,” only a year ago, the women are already in the planning stages for their fourth album which, they hope, will be primarily original music recorded mostly by The Tones themselves. They are also busy preparing for their 10th anniversary concert on June 16th at The Triad on the Upper West Side.
After ten years of trial and error, the group has some points of advice to offer other groups:
- Allow the group to grow organically and evolve naturally. Trying to do everything at once and outpacing yourselves can lead to burnout.
- Large groups can make a big sound, but a smaller group often allows for a better group dynamic and social experience.
- Be comfortable enough with each other to both offer and accept constructive criticism graciously. Not everything is personal – it is about making the group better as a whole.
- Dividing responsibilities among group members eases the burden of work and helps in streamlining decision-making processes.
Perhaps the most important key to the group’s success, however, is the home that members have found within.
“Manhattan is busy, but we always come back to The Tones and that’s why the group has lasted as long as it has,” Watson states. “The group centers and grounds us. The fact that we can do it together, and do it well and enjoy it so much, despite the fact that there’s so much else going on in the city and in our lives – that’s really special and I think that makes us pretty unique.”
MetropoliTONES Press Kit
More about the Contemporary A Cappella League
About the author:
Jenn Fiduccia, North Carolina’s CASA Ambassador, swears that a cappella music saved her life. Trapped as a political science/pre-law, yuppie-in-the-making at Boston College, she auditioned (on a dare) for the newly-founded BC Dynamics and quickly realized that if she did not pursue a career in music, she would most surely die of heartbreak (Fiduccia also claims a slight flare for the dramatic.) After two colleges and three different majors, Jennifer graduated from New York University as a vocal performance major with a concentration in music business. After college, Ms. Fiduccia spent her time as a professional soloist in the New York metro area singing with a number of vocal and instrumental ensembles, performing in various theatrical productions and appearing on several different recording projects. In addition, she worked for ten years as a Music Minister and Youth Minister in the Catholic Church, where she created and directed two different worship music ensembles. In 2009, Jenn left the great state of New Jersey (*fistpump*) for North Carolina (although she vehemently denies that the move was orchestrated to be closer to the SoJam a cappella festival.) She set up house in Wake Forest with her husband and four children and has since had a hand in founding and directing two different CAL groups in the Raleigh area. When she is not playing referee or chauffer, she takes pleasure in sipping wine on her front porch, going to Zumba class at the gym, and arranging nursery rhyme remixes for the kids.