During reading week at Yeshiva University, the beit midrash is packed with students preparing for their finals. At a table by the window, Dafna Meyers puts down her seforim, picks up her headphones and takes a much needed break to listen to “Don’t Let Me Down/Closer,” the Y-Studs’ newest song. She soon has another friend take one of the earphones so they can listen together, both of them raving about the immense talent the men in the group exhibit. Even though Meyers admittedly doesn’t know all that much about music, she still is able to recognize the “talented singers who do cool curling things with their voices,” one of many compliments the Y-Studs receive from students.
Meyers is not the only one who recognizes the talent in the Y-Studs’ newest song. The hallways of Stern and YC, dorm rooms, and Facebook groups are all filled with the hum of this cover, as well as praise for the college a cappella group. The popular Yeshiva University Facebook group, YU Marketplace even has a poll asking which Chanukah a cappella cover is the best. The Y-Studs’ “Don’t Let Me Down” currently holds an overwhelming majority of the votes, with comments on the poll saying the Y-Studs’ cover is “lit.”
The Y-Studs posted the video on Facebook and in a week the video had almost 100,000 views and almost 2,000 shares. One of the comments on the video (with 20 likes) highlights what everyone who saw it and shared it was thinking: “Great job choosing an unexpected song for [the] Chanukah season and arranging it into a masterpiece. You guys keep getting better!”
The Y-Studs’ unexpected song choice is part of the reason they have caught the attention of so many people. Gedalia Penner, who has been a Y-Stud member for two-and-a-half years, was instrumental in the song choice. “I thought ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ would be a tasteful song to use… looking at the lyrics themselves, they are so easily applicable to one’s relationship with God,” Penner said in an interview. “I knew,” he continued, “[that] it would be conducive to creating a piece that would… be very soulful and hopefully touch a lot of hearts.” Instead of making a parody song by changing the words like many a cappella groups do, Penner and the Y-Studs wanted to keep the integrity of the lyrics that already—in the words of Y-Studs former music director, Nathaniel Ribner—“[held] the message of emunah.” Making them more applicable to the lives of Jews by strengthening that message, the group altered the lyrics to “Closer.”
One of the things that makes the song particularly unusual is the arrangement. The Y-Studs reached out to professional a cappella arranger, Shams Ahmed, to do the arrangement of the piece. Ahmed is the lead arranger for North Eastern’s a cappella group, The Noreasters, and works primarily with the A Cappella Academy.
Ribner, still a member of the Y-Studs, reached out to Ahmed for this song. “[Shams is] one of the current a cappella giants.” The group had discussed working with Ahmed on an arrangement in the past, but this is the first time they were able to work it out. While this is the first time they worked with him on a piece, the group was able to bring him in for a workshop over the summer. Ribner said, “[At the workshop] he got to know the voices in the group and have a better understanding of who exactly he was arranging for.”
Ahmed said that from the time the Y-Studs asked him to do the arrangement until the day the video was put out was approximately two weeks, which is very fast to put the arrangement, vocals and video together. There was pressure to put something out before Chanukah, but also to not compromise on the quality. “From a not-really-unbiased perspective, I think their video is among the best of this year’s stuff,” Ahmed said. The goal behind the arrangement for both Ahmed and the Y-Studs was to make sure it was something that evoked emotion. But Ahmed also wanted to arrange the piece “with a wink, because it’s an all male a cappella group so you still want to not take it too seriously.”
Netanel Paley, music minor at YC, calls the song’s arrangement “masterful.” “The arrangement accentuate[s] individual voices, in passionate solos as well as richly layered harmonies. The sheer size and vocal diversity of the group as well creates an exquisite sound that unifies its singular voices even as it highlights their varied timbres.” The complexity of the arrangement accomplished what they originally set out to do.
Ahmed’s favorite part of working with the group was the quality of the members of the Y-Studs. Often, when an arranger works with a group, he or she gets feedback from the point person he/she speaks to and that is it. In this case, Ahmed got feedback from many of the Y-Studs, all telling him how excited they were to be working together.
Ribner also cites this as one of his favorite parts of the group. “They’re not only extremely talented, they’re all huge mentches.” Ribner believes that each individual member’s drive and energy is what sets the group apart from other Jewish a cappella groups. “[Every member] is constantly stepping up [to] inspire others.” Ribner felt it important to mention that the Y-Studs “are part of a great Jewish and secular a cappella community… [that] root[s] for [each others’] success.” The end goal is to reach the largest audience and inspire people with music, something Ribner feels all the a cappella groups work hard to achieve.
Back in the beit midrash, Meyers has just hit “replay” on the YouTube video for the eighth time in a row, making it approximately the eightieth time this week she has listened to this song. “I think [the Y-Studs] represent some of the amazing talent [at] YU. They have truly made the best Chanukah mash-up this year. Incredible.”