October 31, 2009
Sometimes, the mind-numbing nature of life as a freshman at the Air Force Academy brings unseen advantages.
Those long months of confinement with few privileges, a government-mandated wardrobe and screamed instructions from upperclassmen gave birth in 2003 to a blue-clad version of The Backstreet Boys.
The group is named after the only place those freshmen could find refuge and singing space — well, at least outside the shower: In the Stairwell.
“It’s a release from the stress of school,” singer and sophomore Mark Mendez said during a recent practice for the group of 18 men.
Although the original five singers worked the stairs in the dorms, as their number grew, they had to find a new venue. “Too loud,” one singer explained.
On a recent afternoon in Arnold Hall, outside the academy’s main theater, the a cappella group belted out a crowd favorite — “Viva La Vida,” a hit for Coldplay.
Their harmonies meshed like cadets marching in formation. But the tune came out with a joy that transcends the academy’s rigidity.
In the Stairwell isn’t an academy club and doesn’t have an officer who frets every detail of its organization.
Instead, the cadets tap their already tight study time to practice twice a week amid an informal atmosphere where even freshmen can call elders by their first names.
“Knowing them gives me a sense of comfort,” said Erik Clark. “Upperclassmen actually have souls and feelings.”
Every year the group picks popular tunes or musical, if cynical, peeks into academy life to share with audiences.
“Warriors for the Longest Time,” composed a couple of years ago to the tune of a Billy Joel ballad, pokes fun at everything from food at the cadet chow hall to the anti-terrorism fence that circles the cadet area.
But this year’s group is mostly mainstream in its musical tastes, and its repertoire is being heard far beyond the stairwell where it all began.
“We’re trying to get more exposure,” said cadet Alex Choi, who leads the singing group.
The singers have performed at various venues, including academy hockey games and military ceremonies.
Academy brass have embraced the singers. “Not only does it add to the culture of the campus, it also gives the cadets involved an outlet from the daily grind of academics and military training,” said academy spokesman John Van Winkle.
They’ve gone past the academy’s gates to sing at community events including a kick-off party for All Pikes Peak Reads.
But it’s not about the fame.
“It’s like a sport,” said Mendez, who said the singing dates and time spent in practice bonds the volunteer singers.
The friendships developed among the Stairwell singers have them traveling in packs. They haunt local restaurants together, often bursting into song at the table.
“Yes, we have used our singing to hit on waitresses,” joked cadet Ryan Gipson.
The cadets are getting ready for their busiest singing season. The holidays can bring two gigs a day.
That won’t measurably increase the cadets’ small salaries, but it might expand their waistlines.
Choi said the group’s long-standing motto is “Will sing for food.” The singers are known for laying waste to the remnants of party buffets, clearing out leftovers after they’ve sung for supper.
“It’s a big thing,” Gipson said. “We really sing for food.”