A Cappella Alumni Return to Celebrate Octet's 75th Anniversary
Ted Smith '83 knew he wanted to sing with the Octet at the age of 5.
His father, the late music teacher Jim Smith, taught at Mercersburg Academy and introduced him to the Octet during Friday evening performances held on the '88 slab outside of the dining hall.
“It was Bob and George's group,” recalls Smith, referring to Robert “Bob” Bonham '71 and George Alter III '72. “They sang a great knockoff of a Beach Boys tune, ‘The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.’ I was so entranced listening to that solo that I said, ‘I'm gonna do that.’”
When Smith was in 9th grade, he auditioned for the Octet and was chosen. “I still have the posting from outside of the rehearsal room of that Octet,” he says. “I made the list, and it was one of the proudest days of my life.” He later had the chance to sing a solo when his group performed “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”
That day has stretched into many years of Mercersburg connections and Octet performances with like-minded alumni from across the decades. In fact, those who served as Smith's incentive for joining the Octet when he was 5, Bonham and Alter, are now his close friends. During Family and Alumni Weekend in October, they returned to Mercersburg along with other a cappella group members to celebrate the Octet's 75th anniversary. The Magalia will mark 50 years in 2025.
Throughout the weekend, they rehearsed together and then joined current Octet and Magalia members on stage during a Saturday evening Arts Showcase in the Burgin Center for the Arts' Simon Theatre.
Julie Kaufman Nussdorfer '99, P '26 came not only to sing but also to participate in Family and Alumni Weekend with her son, Jonathan. “I enjoyed being able to observe my son in his classes and activities and see him interacting with his peers and the Mercersburg faculty and staff,” she says.
“Magalia was probably my favorite activity at Mercersburg and one of my most memorable. I loved having the opportunity to be a part of a select group of singers who not only performed music together but also became close as a group. This experience built my confidence as a musician and provided me with some of my best Mercersburg memories,” she says.
Jennifer Miller Smith '97, P '23, '24, Mercersburg's dean of academics, sang with the Women's Ensemble—later named Magalia—in 11th and 12th grades. The group was under the direction of Jim Smith, who she says “ended up being one of the most influential educators in my life.”
“We rehearsed in the Edwards Room, all gathered around a grand piano, and my best memories are the simple rehearsal nights together with the other girls,” she says.
The reunion reminded Catherine Stover '07 that when she was a student, music and arts were where she felt at home. “There was a familial homecoming between all the different class years that I hadn't felt at the reunions for my graduating class,” she says.
Nussdorfer credits Jim Brinson, arts faculty and current director of Mercersburg's Octet and Magalia groups, for going above and beyond in helping with practice before the Arts Showcase. “It made me remember how much I enjoy singing and brought back memories of some of my best experiences at Mercersburg,” she says about the reunion.
According to Brinson, the students really enjoyed singing with the alumni. “Having the extra voices was a great experience for our students. It changed how the music sounded,” he says.
The alumni sang some of their favorites, including Magalia's “Build Me Up, Buttercup” and Octet's “De Animals.” The Maget, all of the a cappella groups combined, brightened the Simon Theatre with “Mr. Blue Sky.” A surprise pop-up performance by the Octet alumni delighted families and students during lunch on Saturday.
“Our students also seemed to enjoy and appreciate hearing alumni share their stories,” says Brinson. “I believe the entire experience was rewarding for all.”
Before the Showcase, several Octeters sat down to discuss what it means to be a member of the Octet, their love of music, the camaraderie they have developed with other alumni, and life lessons learned as Octet members.
While the members have many reasons for returning to Octet reunions, they all agree that harmony is the magic tie that binds their love of singing together.
Josh Bowling '08 didn't make the Octet as a freshman, but he tried again the next year and made the cut. After that, he says, “I kept trying to steal solos every year. Just because it was so much fun. That sense of building harmony with a small group is hard to find anywhere else.”
Alter agrees. “The magic to me is the first time we're in the room and we're banging out something that's four-part harmony, and then when we do it, and you just hear the four parts. We're holding notes at the end just because the cord is so nice. We're all four-part harmony junkies,” he says, drawing agreement and laughter from the group.
“When you get it and it's perfect,” says Steve Cohen '88, “there is a genuine sense of satisfaction. I don't know that I've recaptured that same feeling in any other area of my life—that feeling of working in a tight cohesive group and just really, absolutely everyone is spot on. And then, when you've finished the song, you look at each other and you know that what you've done together is special.”
Mike Crump '06 says he felt the magic return during the Octet's first rehearsal. “There were just a few moments when everything really clicked, and there was a sense of satisfaction and invigoration that you get when you hear it and you know it's right,” he says.
The alumni enjoy performing, but it's still about the music, according to Bowling. “There's a sort of benign hooliganry that is at the heart of the Octet. As much as we love performing, and the audience loving it and the adulation,” he says, “we do it for the music. Not necessarily for the audience. That is just a very happy byproduct. Because we care so much, the audience gets to enjoy it, too.”
Octet members express deep feelings about the relationships they not only developed as students singing with other students but also the camaraderie with other alumni that grows during every Octet reunion.
“There's a real fellowship among Octet members, and it stretches across the decades,” says Cohn. “We've gotten to know each other from the reunions and built a bond through the music but also through a common experience.”
Throughout the years, there have been Octet groups and members with exceptional gifts. The group is particularly proud of those with outstanding talent who continued on to professional musical careers. Alter mentions 1969 classmates John Brink and Andrew Wentzel. Both an actor and musician, Brink has performed multiple roles in a variety of musical theaters and made solo appearances from Omaha to New York City. Wentzel has made appearances at the Metropolitan Opera and with other opera groups. He has also been the official “Anthem Man’’ at Tennessee home football games at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
Nicholas DiVirgilio '77 points out that while each Octet group has a variety of talent, the challenge is to bring the group together. “You are going to get a diverse group of people who have to learn how to work with each other. And where is that more important than today?”
- Alumni Life