The Brown Derbies is an all-male a cappella group founded at Brown University in 1982. Since then, they have sung at the White House, performed at Carnegie Hall, met Debbie Gibson, been featured in the Early Show, and performed at weddings and colleges across the United States.
I am Derby #145.
I’ve been asked numerous times before how it feels to be a Brown Derby, but I have never given a satisfying answer.
I am thankful to be part of this group for a lot of reasons. With the Derbies, I’ve had more excuses to sing and more courage to push myself musically. I got to do things I never thought I would have done before: stay at a beach house in Florida, do ridiculous dance moves for a competition, and most importantly, get to know a set of completely different people, all of whom have completely different interests and viewpoints than I, but have somehow ended up being some of my closest friends at Brown.
While all of these are good and true, being in the group is not all rainbows and harmonies. Being a Derby exposed me to some of the most emotionally taxing experiences I’ve had at Brown. They have challenged my beliefs and led me to wrestle with different aspects of my faith.
When I told the Derbies freshman year that I wasn’t going to drink, the inevitable question was “Why?”, the type of why asked out of curiosity as opposed to pressure. This made me ask myself: really, why was I not drinking? I didn’t want to show my embarrassing drunk self, I said. Translation: I’m not supposed to because people from church didn’t do so. Translation: I’m not sure if Christ would be doing the same thing. Translation: Because of my faith. Why couldn’t I tell them that? What was it about my faith that kept me from telling them the real deal? Was I – gasp – ashamed?
I would say yes. Yes, I was.
For the rest of freshman year, I didn’t drink – even amidst Sloshball, a tradition of playing kickball against another a cappella group on campus, but with a twist. Still, my question remained, and it extended to the rest of the things I couldn’t do because they were against my rules. I was falling into a legalistic trap. I was becoming bitter. Everything I did at that point was a checklist. Read the Bible. Check. Pray. Check. Don’t do this. Check. My convictions had become the hollow following of rules.
“What is the meaning of Christianity?” one of the Derbies asked me. “Love,” I said. This concept is something that I’ve increasingly understood over the course of my walk as a Christian. Rule-free love. Not the one that lets you do whatever you want even if it hurts and destroys you, but the love that does not need a to-do and not-to-do list. Love that is born out of a genuine desire to make the other happy. This is the type of relationship with and obedience to God I have grown to desire and strive for. I want to follow Him because I love Him, not because of the rules set before me.
Another thing that I have grappled with is pride. Before getting into the Derbies spring of freshman year, I was rejected by two groups in the fall. In my first weeks at Brown, I tried to build my identity as a singer. I wanted to be somebody amidst a sea of people who had traveled and changed the world before they had gotten into college. At least I got singing, I thought. When I didn’t make it into those groups, I felt like I was being told I wasn’t good enough at the one thing I thought I was good at.
Dealing with rejection was an ordeal. My mom told me that I sounded more upset about these rejections than about a recent breakup. In all this questioning and humbling, I found myself in the Branch, the Christian group of which I have been a part since entering Brown as a freshman. That first semester was my chance to know and strive to be the person I wanted to become without the added pressure of being in the a cappella community. It was the relative calm in which I could start figuring out my faith and relationship with God. “Clutch” is a word I would use to describe that semester of rejection. Had I gotten into the groups I auditioned for that semester, I probably would have turned into the most arrogant person I know.
Even now, pride is still something for which I need to watch myself. Performances come with a plethora of compliments, thanks to the incredibly supportive people that surround me. “You were so good!” “You have the voice of an angel!” “You were amazing!”
It is so, so easy to let flattery go to one’s head, and I’ve always been wary of that. This awareness had made me inept at receiving compliments. How does one graciously accept commendations without thinking highly of himself? How does one maintain genuine humility? John, my mentor from the Branch, told me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard regarding this quandary: Take compliments as roses. Then lay them all at the feet of Jesus. I can’t claim my voice as my own good doing. It’s like claiming I’m responsible for having my hair color. My voice, along with anything in me that is remotely beautiful, is all God’s doing. He is the beauty in me.
Now in my fourth semester as a Derby, I am aware of how much I’ve grown to love and care for the group. This caring is probably the hardest challenge of them all. There are nights when I try to sleep but can’t because I am preoccupied with Derby-related things – our adventures and gigs, the group dynamic, our relationships. These people have managed to occupy a nook in my heart that I never really thought I was willing to share.
This caring, I think, is a reason why God has had to challenge me multiple times with these questions. Do you love Me more than this? Do you love Me more than that solo you are trying to get? Do you love Me more than the applause and the accolades? Do you love Me more than the bonding, the traveling, the fun, the harmonies, the people?
Each time I am confronted with these challenges, I come back to some of the most important memories I’ve had as a Derby. Being on a humongous stage for ICCA, one gag away from a grandiose Pitch Perfect-esque moment of puking in front of hundreds of people. Hearing my friends scream their support in Sayles and Wayland Arch. Having vulnerable moments and deep conversations. Hearing a wild knock at 11:58 pm one night in the spring of freshman year. Opening the door. Hearing the Derbies sing, welcoming me in.
If God asked me to give up all of this, would I be able to let them all go?
Sometimes, when I find the answer difficult to acknowledge and accept, I look back to what my friend, Berit Goetz, a Brown and a cappella alum, said when we were at Urbana 2012.
“I was praying today, for the first time actually, that if I could no longer sing – that no one would ever compliment my voice – that it’s okay. I’ll be fine. Jesus is sufficient.”
Singing is a gift. So are being a Derby and the Derbies themselves. Being in this group has been a significant part of my Brown experience. It has been a great and worthwhile journey with this group, but this, too, shall pass. At some point, I will have to let go.
Amidst all this, One will remain constant. Through the remaining semesters I have of putting on my white shirt, khaki pants, brown vest, shoes and derby, there is one reflection that I hope to see when I look in the mirror: Christ shining through me.