A Cappella Singers Go Mouth-O A Mouth-O

Love Notes 300

hide captionThe Love Notes quartet was one of the younger groups at this year's Harmony Sweepstakes, competing against some of the country's most talented a capella groups.

Courtesy of the artist

If you're not already watching your fill of amateur singers belting their hearts out on TV, don't worry. This fall, there will be more.

The sounds of a cappella singing are propelling Fox TV's Glee. Also in the works at NBC is a reality competition show called The Sing Off — a sort of American Idol without instruments.

Some who might be hoping for TV fame recently got some practice in the national a cappella competition, held this year in San Rafael, Calif. It's called the Harmony Sweepstakes, and it's been drawing vocal groups from around the country for 25 years.

The Smell Of Hairspray, The Roar Of The Crowd

The smell of hairspray wafts from the backstage dressing rooms as 2,000 people settle into their seats in the sold-out auditorium. Before the lightbulb-lined mirrors, the four young women of the San Jose Love Notes primp and curl. The group's lead singer, 18-year-old Mia Dessenberger, says audiences are surprised to see such a young, all-female barbershop quartet.

"People think of the men in pinstriped suits and straw hats singing 'Goodnight Sweetheart,' " Dessenberger says.

But these singers in tight dresses woo audiences with their complex harmonies and unconventional song choices. Think Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.

A cappella has a discreet following, mostly around better-known groups like Take 6 or The Bobs. Amy Englehardt sings with The Bobs. Including hers, she can count the vocal bands that have record deals on one hand.

"A cappella is still considered a niche or novelty thing," Englehardt says. "You're talking about a niche of a niche."

For most groups, a cappella is an after-work hobby. Musicians write their own arrangements of popular songs in four-, six- or 10-part harmony. Singers meet once or twice a week to rehearse. They earn some extra cash performing at parties or corporate gigs and selling CDs on their Web sites. But for any groups that take themselves even half seriously, the Harmony Sweepstakes is the Holy Grail.

The Super Bowl Of A Cappella

Tim Jones and Matt Murphy are members of the Denver Mouth Beats. The group tried out for the national competition at one of the eight regional contests held throughout the country. These guys don't sing lyrics; they create rhythms and sounds by contorting their lips and flicking their noses like thumb pianos.

A number of today's singers use the human voice to imitate a range of instruments, re-creating popular rock, R&B and hip-hop songs. In addition to the Mouth Beats, Jones founded a heavy metal a cappella band, Placental Armageddon, to do a little vocal headbanging.

"If I wanted to sound like an electric guitar, you stick your lips out and buzz by your teeth and put a lot of spit," Jones says, doing a passable impersonation of an electric guitar.

But Molly Plummer is impressed.

"(The) things they do with their mouths, they sound like a band," Plummer enthuses. She's the tenor in Maxx Factor, one of the eight national finalists in the Harmony Sweepstakes. The group's members say they felt lucky to make it that far.

"We feel like we're so out of our element," Plummer says. "We're so in awe of these people; they're so good."

The four women in this barbershop quartet from suburban Baltimore range from their mid-30s to early 50s. They sport matching French manicures and red pedicures. The silver sequins on their shoes sparkled under the Harmony Sweepstakes stage lights.

They volunteered to perform first, mostly so they could watch and learn from the other groups. But the judges saw things the other way around.

Maxx Factor won the 2009 Harmony Sweepstakes. It was the group's first trip to the West Coast. Perhaps its second will be to Hollywood this summer, to audition for NBC's The Sing Off.

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