For fourth year, Octet takes the field at Yankee Stadium

Jordan Furtak

The Octet’s last in-person Yankees performance in 2019. (Kevin Yang/The Williams Record.)

The Williams Octet, one of the College’s all-male acapella groups, on Sept. 22 performed the national anthem on the big screen at Yankee Stadium in New York. While the rendition was delivered virtually this year — previously recorded from campus and projected on the ballpark’s big screen — the Octet has performed live at a Yankees home game every year since 2017, with the exception of last year due to the pandemic.

The tradition stemmed from a common connection to the College. George Steinbrenner III ’52 owned the Yankees until his death in 2010, and his son Hal Steinbrenner ’91 currently serves as the franchise’s general managing partner. Hal Steinbrenner, motivated by his personal connection to the College, initiated the Octet–Yankee relationship.

“My family has a deep-seated relationship with Williams College, as well as the positive influence of music and the arts,” Steinbrenner wrote to the Record. “Having the Octet perform the national anthem each season at Yankee Stadium is a tradition that brings to the forefront two institutional pillars. I know how passionate my father was of Williams College and of its historical musical accomplishments, and it brings me great pride to provide an opportunity to showcase the Octet’s talents in such a meaningful way.”

Matt Duquette ’22, who has been a member of the Octet since he was a first-year, recalled the surreal emotions surrounding the live performances. “You walk onto the field … for a soundcheck, and it’s just an empty, giant stadium and you’re at the bottom,” he said. “And then when everybody is there, it’s even weirder because everybody’s standing waiting for you to sing. You walk out and we all form… a little chip with two rows and we sing our song and leave.”

The tradition has special significance for Duquette, who is a baseball fan himself and even played on the College’s baseball team as a first-year and sophomore. Although he is a Baltimore Orioles fan, he said that he nevertheless loves going down to Yankee Stadium.

Peter Duke ’22, who was originally part of the Class of 2021 but took last year off, has been a member of the Octet since he was a first-year. The first Octet-Yankees performance in 2017 occurred a couple weeks after he joined the group. “It was crazy,” he said. “I got into the group, and I think [the performance] was like a week after that.”

Although Duke had very little time between his audition for the Octet and a performance in front of tens of thousands of fans, he said that he wasn’t very nervous, crediting his composure to his background in theater.

When the group performed in person at the stadium in previous years, they had to take special preparations for the echo of the stadium, which causes a few seconds’ delay between what the singers hear and what they actually sing, Duke explained. To mimic the confusing conditions of the stadium, the Octet employed a rehearsal technique that Duke compares to a flight simulator. They would play the song from a portable speaker and practice singing a couple seconds behind the music.

“Because [the stadium is] so big and because it’s a bowl … you will sing a note and you won’t hear it come out of your mouth,” Duquette said. “But then you’ll hear it behind you a couple seconds later. So you just have to stay in your mind and know your part.”

As the Octet’s music director this year, Duke was responsible for coordinating the national anthem, which involved dealing with different technical challenges from those of years past. He rented equipment from the College, and the Octet recorded the song in a room in Sawyer Library. He then filmed the group lip-syncing the song in front of Chapin Hall. “With some movie magic it all came together,” he said.

Duquette said that the tradition of performing at Yankee stadium is a big opportunity for group bonding. Before his first performance, he said, the group was getting ready in the locker room when one member began to sing the bassline for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” “We didn’t know ‘Billie Jean.’ We had never sung it as a group or anything… We just improv[ised] it and started singing ‘Billie Jean’ as we were getting ready… It was light-spirited and helped me relax a bit,” he said.

After the performance, the Octet was given seats in left field along the foul line. Duke recalled that members of the group have caught foul balls in the past. Duquette said that he does not know if this has ever occurred but that the Yankees did “once hit a home run into the section over.”

“It was close,” Duquette said, “but no cigar.”

Managing Editor Kevin Yang, a member of The Williams Octet, was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.