By Molly Petrilla
From Bach to Billie Eilish, Jefferson Groups Sing It All
No matter what else is going on in her life, for an hour and a half on Tuesday nights, Grace Denfeld isn’t just a student in the occupational therapy master’s program at Jefferson. In fact, “as much as I love OT, I’m not going to think about it,” she says. “I’m just going to be Grace, and Grace really likes to sing.”
As president of the Arrhythmias—Jefferson’s acappella group for women—Denfeld is one of many in the Jefferson community who spend some of their limited free time bursting into song. Among the university’s five singing groups, you can hear PhD students, future doctors and nurses, hospital employees, undergrads, alumni, professors, and even patients making music together.
And unlike the aca-battles that drive Pitch Perfect, Jefferson’s groups are all about collaboration and mutual support, and each has it’s own niche.
It’s easy to spot an Arrhythmia when she’s dressed to perform. She’ll be in all black with a self-selected pop of bright color: orange lipstick or chunky earrings or striking heels. But the group is about more than expressing personal style, and even about more than singing. “It is a safe space,” Denfeld says. “I never feel judged by them.”
Similar to Pitch Perfect’s all-female Barden Bellas, the Arrhythmias mostly stick to songs made famous by women artists. Destiny’s Child, TLC, Amy Winehouse, Sara Bareilles, and Kelly Clarkson have all been in their concert repertoire over the years.
“Even though we’re all women, we have some [who can hit] the highest soprano notes and then we have women who get down into the low tenors, which is traditionally a male voice part,” Denfeld says. “We create a really rich, interesting sound with just women.”
The members themselves are equally varied. “Traditionally it’s been mostly med students,” Denfeld says, but the current group also includes OT students, nursing students, a PhD student, and a doctor who works in a Jefferson-affiliated hospital.
Up until the pandemic, the Arrhythmias organized Jefferson’s annual Music in Medicine concert, which featured the Center City campus’s three a cappella groups, along with other local med school singing groups. They’d also sing at the Jefferson Gala—again with the school’s other two groups—and go caroling in Thomas Jefferson University Hospital during the holidays.
Denfeld hopes to see those traditions come back in soon. Last December marked the group’s first live performance since early 2020. They sang at Jefferson’s surgery party, “and it felt so good,” she says.
The Testosterones are the Arrhythmias’ male counterparts—although their vice president Casey Konys says the group is open to those of any gender identity who sing tenor and bass parts. (Denfeld says her group strives for inclusivity as well.)
It was actually groups like the Testostertones and the Lymph Notes, in which he’s also a member, that prompted Konys to choose Jefferson for medical school. “I picked Jefferson because people did things outside of school,” he says. “That was really important for me.”
Still, if you walked into a Testosterones rehearsal, it would be pretty obvious who these singers are. With members who range from first-year medical students up through residents, it’s not unusual to see scrubs. One of Konys’ classmates once showed up to rehearse with an anatomic model of a heart in tow. “He was like, ‘I just need to keep studying after this, so here’s the heart,’” Konys recalls.
You’ll find the group singing songs from the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Temptations—and Konys’s personal favorite, “Stacy’s Mom” by Bowling for Soup. “Being in a cappella at Jefferson has been the number-one creative thing that I’ve done during medical school,” he says. “I feel like I would go insane without it.”
Across the city in East Falls, the Jefferson Singers have been making music for over 15 years. They’re considered a chamber choir rather than an a cappella group, and their concerts span everything from early classical works to recent pop songs.“I always say it’s a musical feast,” says John M. Grecia, who became the group’s director in 2015. “I really try to program that way, so there is something for everyone.”
At their fall concert last December—the group’s first in-person performance since the COVID-19 pandemic began—they sang “Ave Maria” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” along with songs by Sara Bareilles and Stephen Sondheim, plus a few modern classical choral works.
“I’m trying to program at a level that will challenge the person that’s used to singing, but also be welcoming enough to someone who just enjoys singing at a certain level,” Grecia says.
Auditions aren’t required to join, and membership is open to students, alumni, faculty, and staff. “We have had all three as members,” Grecia says. He estimates that the current group is about 70% students, most of them undergrads.
Choir rehearsal “was kind of the original social media, in a way,” he adds. And as students’ lives become increasingly busy and digital, singing groups offer “this kind of historic fulfillment that humans are able to gain from music: the ability to sing with other lovely humans.”
Thomas Jefferson University Choir
Robert Sataloff, MD ’75, who is now an adjunct professor at Jefferson’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College, founded the University Choir in 1970, which makes it the oldest singing group on campus by several decades.
It’s also the largest, with a membership that ranges from about 50 up to over 100 singers depending on the year. “I take anybody connected with Jefferson, even loosely, who has an interest in singing,” Sataloff says. That includes students and alumni, along with faculty, staff, and even patients—plus spouses.
The group has been on hiatus since March 2020, but traditionally they present a spring and winter concert each year, performed with a full orchestra and several professional singers to bolster the group’s sound. They sing major classical works (part of Handel’s “Messiah” is an annual tradition) but also rock, jazz, and other more recent songs.
As an otolaryngologist who specializes in vocal professionals and has written extensively on performing arts medicine, Sataloff is deeply aware of the value his group offers the entire university community. That’s why he doesn’t require auditions or restrict the number of rehearsals a singer can miss.
“There are things you learn from Haydn and Bach that you simply cannot learn from an anatomy book,” he says. “And those things are very relevant to the art of medicine.”
That’s also why the choir’s concerts have always been free. “I don’t want anybody missing the opportunity to hear great music,” says Sataloff, who is already planning the group’s first post-COVID-19 appearance: a December 2022 concert, complete with “Messiah” selections.
The Lymph Notes
Jefferson’s newest—and coed—a cappella group formed in 2017 thanks to “five friends who really wanted to sing together,” Konys says. Not only that, they specifically wanted to sing “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.”
Now the group starts off every year by learning that song together. “Then we go stand in one of the stairwells, which has a really great echo, and sing it all together,” Konys says. “It’s a really beautiful moment.”
Beyond that special song, “we don’t really have a specific sound or specific theme,” says Lymph Notes’ president Michal Norry. Members can suggest any songs that are on their current to-sing wish lists. “And if we can find an arrangement or if someone is able to write an arrangement for it, then we’ll learn it,” she says.
Norry, who also sings with the Arrhythmias, says that Jefferson’s a cappella groups let fledgling med students meet upperclassmen, who they probably never would have crossed paths with. And because Jefferson’s a cappella groups are mostly run by med students, for med students, they aim to keep things low-pressure.
“Anytime someone apologizes to me when they can’t make it to rehearsal, I tell them that it’s not supposed to be something that you get stressed about missing,” Norry says. “It’s supposed to be something that you do for fun.”