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March 7, 2006

Old style, new sounds

Contra Costa Times (CA):

First, college campuses. Tomorrow, the world. A cappella, the instrument-free music form popularized by barbershop quartets and glee clubs at the turn of the 20th century, has exploded on the college music scene. It even stars in a new indie documentary. But if you're thinking "Sweet Adeline" or a little shoop shoop, doo-wop, think again.

Modern a cappella is a little Coldplay, a little Boyz II Men and 20,000 college-age singers whose voices can soar -- or sound like a drum set. "They're using voices as instruments, textures, vocal percussion," said Deke Sharon, founder of the Bay Area-based Contemporary A Cappella Society of America. "They've gone from singing Simon and Garfunkel to U2. All of a sudden, everyone's a rock star on campus."

Twenty years ago, a cappella was still a niche choral art practiced by about a hundred amateur and professional groups nationwide. But that was before Bobby McFerrin, Boyz II Men and Rockapella redefined the form. The discovery that you could make music with your body, emulate drums and cymbals with your mouth -- that you didn't have to have a rock band to sound like one -- changed everything. Today, there are more than a thousand collegiate a cappella groups, a five-fold increase in a single decade. And Sharon expects tens of thousands of high schools to follow suit. Many are already there, he said, or on the verge, with a foundation laid by their thriving choral and instrumental music programs.

Nearly everyone who sings a cappella with the groups who perform at UC Berkeley's Sather Gate, for example, had musical training in high school. They may not have sung doo-wop, but they did concert choir or, like former sax man Miguel De Leon, played in the band. De Leon's a vocal percussionist now, providing snares and cymbal sounds for Cal's Artists in Resonance every Monday at noon. "You listen to records and try to make it as real as possible," said De Leon, who graduated in December but still sings with the group. "Everyone's got notes and chords to learn, and you fool around. It's fun." And it's wildly popular with both singers and fans. Cornell University has 18 student-run a cappella groups. Cal has five. And they just keep coming, accompanied by a certain irrepressible wit that plays out in lyrics, choreography and truly inspired names. Yale Law has its Habeas Chorus. Brandeis boasts the Shirley Tempos. And a sense of sheer fun wafts from every stage.

But there's musical integrity, as well as laughs. When USC junior Elissa Weinzimmer, a Campolindo High graduate, dons a black hat and goes into a Michael Jackson moonwalk, the crowd goes nuts. But USC's award-winning a cappella group, Reverse Osmosis, also won the a cappella world's equivalent of a Grammy, the CARA, in 2003. A documentary, about the group, "Rock and R.O.," hits the indie film festival circuit next week. Moviegoers at Florida's inaugural Delray Beach Film Festival will see not only the documentary, directed by USC graduate and Reverse Osmosis groupie Heather Kennedy, but the singers, too. The festival is flying the 17-member troupe out for the debut. And the group -- whose roster also includes Danville's Grace Jackson -- swept the quarterfinals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella last month. The singers are bound for the semifinals at Stanford, where they'll go head-to-head with the UC Berkeley Men's Octet.

Behind all the crowd-pleasing showmanship is music theory, voice training and hours and hours of practice. Members of Cal's Artists in Resonance practice six to 10 hours a week. They use software programs such as Sibelius to arrange scores, said Orinda native Rafi Syed, and share files so they can practice more at home. There's a specific skill set you need for a cappella, said Gene Peterson, who directs choral music at Moraga's Campolindo High, and practice is key. It's not just a matter of channeling Seal or the Eurythmics. The group has to create textures, blend harmonies and create the whole sound, sans drummer and band.

Peterson brought in a cappella expert Mark Stover to help his new a cappella groups learn the art of beatboxing and vocal percussion this winter. "I think of a cappella as the acrobatic form of the vocal arts," said Stover. "You almost have to become a vocal chameleon to make 20 radically different sounds with your mouth. Bobby McFerrin was a key influence in discovering the dynamic possibilities of the body, the subharmonics, the tones you create in the microphone with buzzing."

It's even harder than it sounds, but some people, including Campolindo senior Joe Howard, are naturals. When they do a soft, rhythmic "kshhh" into the microphone, it sounds like a brush hitting a cymbal. A deep, muffled "dbuh" mimics the sound of a kick drum. And those gales of giggles? That would be the sound of the entire Campolindo student body attempting the same feat at an assembly. It's an acquired skill. But the results are contagious.

Posted by acapnews at March 7, 2006 12:19 AM