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May 5, 2006

Battle of the Vocal Chords

Marin Independent Journal (CA):

The musical term "a cappella" - singing without instrumental accompaniment - is Italian for "like in the chapel," a reference to restrictions on the use of instruments in medieval churches. The isolated vocal harmonies reveal the power of the human voice. Music fans will have the opportunity to experience this captivating sound Saturday when eight of the country's best vocal groups perform in Marin for the 2006 national finals at the 22nd annual Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival.

"I think people are drawn to the human voice in a way that is more powerful than other forms of music," says Eric Freeman, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer and member of the Oakland-based group Clockwork. "It commands attention. It's like concentrated entertainment. "There's something magical that happens when all five of us are singing together. It's the 'whole is greater than the sum of the parts' thing."

Clockwork, whose tunes are rooted in jazz, is representing the Bay Area for the second year. "Going to the show is the prize," says Freeman. "It's a 2,000-seat hall that sells out. I have yet to find an audience that's a quarter of the size and loves the music that much." Competing in the finals are professional, semi-pro, collegiate and amateur groups that won regional competitions in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, the Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

The performers, who share a respect for each other's music, develop a camaraderie. "During the show, you forget it's a competition," Freeman says. "I have a twinge when it gets to the competitive part because it feels weird to win or lose at an artistic thing. He is confident, however, about Clockwork's chances. "We feel pretty good, but we're trying not to think about it. To be honest, focusing on the competition takes the fun out of it."

San Anselmo's John Neal, event owner and promoter, partnered with the Mayflower Community Chorus in the late '80s and started the festival, which quickly went national. "We really are a Marin institution, especially because the contest grew out of a local chorus," he says. "We want to keep its community roots." The festival's variety of musical genres draws a large audience. "We offer a little of everything. That includes doo-wop, gospel, vocal jazz, contemporary pop and Christian music," Neal says, adding, "You'll see a 5-year-old sitting next to a granny sitting next to SOMA hipsters."

Returning champions Groove for Thought from Washington will host the show and perform. Of winning last year, member Jeff Horenstein says, "We haven't seen any benefit yet because we've been so concentrated on making our first CD, but we anticipate having it help us get in the door and market ourselves."

The contest is judged by a panel of five music industry professionals who grade the groups on musicality and performance. Groups perform a 12-minute set. Like "American Idol," the festival-goers get to vote for the "audience favorite." "We look for dynamism, intonation and technique," says one of last year's judges, David Worm of Oakland-based SoVoSo. "With a cappella, you have to be polished. There's no [instrumental] net, the pitch shifts constantly and the music changes with the other voices in the group. You know someone's got it when you can't take your eye off them in a performance."

The winning group receives free CD replication services and other prizes. Occasionally a cappella groups find relative fame, including SoVoSo, which performs extensively with Bobby McFerrin, and Naturally Seven, which signed with Sony Records, but it's uncommon. "The main prize is the glory of competing. We could have gone the 'American Idol' route and slicked it up with big prizes, but we made the conscious effort to keep it down home. When you offer big prizes, that tends to become the focus," Neal says. "This way, it keeps it fun." Freeman agrees. "It's a privilege to perform for this incredible audience who really wants to hear what you're doing. This is the pinnacle of this type of singing."

Posted by acapnews at May 5, 2006 12:28 AM