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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now a story about some performers who might someday be on television. For now they're still working that legacy medium known as live. They're in the national a cappella competition in California. It's called the Harmony Sweepstakes and it's been drawing vocal groups from around the country for 25 years.

April Dembosky of member station KALW checked it out.

APRIL DEMBOSKY: 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.

(Soundbite of dressing room)

Unidentified Woman: She's not single, she's engaged.

DEMBOSKY: The group's lead singer, 18-year-old Mia Dessenberger, says audiences are surprised to see such a young, all-female barbershop quartet.

Ms. MIA DESSENBERGER (Lead Singer, San Jose Love Notes): People think of the men in pinstripe suits with cute little hats singing, like, "Goodnight Sweetheart" all the time.

DEMBOSKY: But these singers in tight dresses woo audiences with their complex harmonies and unconventional song choices.

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

SAN JOSE LOVE NOTES (A Cappella Group): (Singing) Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

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

Ms. AMY ENGLEHARDT: A cappella is still kind of considered a niche or a novelty thing.

DEMBOSKY: For most groups, a cappella is an after-work hobby.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) Now you can (unintelligible) through St. Louis. We're shopping in Missouri.

DEMBOSKY: Musicians write their own arrangements of popular songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Lose Yourself")

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) Time's up, over, bloah, snap back to reality, oh, there goes gravity.

DEMBOSKY: 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.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing)

DEMBOSKY: But for any group that takes themselves even half seriously, the Harmony Sweepstakes is the Holy Grail.

Mr. TIM JONES (Denver Mouth Beats): It's the Super Bowl of a cappella.

DEMBOSKY: That's Tim.

TIM: AKA Mr. Tim…

DEMBOSKY: Jones from the Denver Mouth Beats.

Mr. MATT MURPHY (Denver Mouth Beats): In a cappella, people are geeks…

DEMBOSKY: And that's his band mate Matt Murphy. These guys don't sing lyrics. They create rhythms by contorting their lips and flicking their noses like thumb pianos.

(Soundbite of oral sounds)

DEMBOSKY: Today's singers use the human voice to imitate a range of instruments.

Mr. MURPHY: If I wanted to sound like an electric guitar, you kind of stick your lips out and buzz by your teeth and put a lot of spit and you go…

(Soundbite of oral sounds)

DEMBOSKY: Things they do with their mouths sound like a band.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah.

DEMBOSKY: Molly Plummer is the tenor in Maxx Factor, one of eight national finalists in the Harmony Sweepstakes.

Ms. MOLLY PLUMMER (Tenor, Maxx Factor): We feel like we're so out of our element. We're so in awe of these people, they're so good.

DEMBOSKY: The four women in this barbershop quartet from suburban Baltimore sport matching French manicures and red pedicures. The silver sequins on their shoes sparkle under the stage lights.

(Soundbite of song, "When You Wish Upon a Star")

MAXX FACTOR (A Cappella Group): (Singing) When you reach upon a star, makes no difference who you are…

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

Unidentified Woman #2: And the 2009 Harmony Sweepstakes a cappella festival national championship winner is Maxx Factor.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #2: Come on out, ladies.

DEMBOSKY: It was Maxx Factor's first trip to the west coast. Perhaps their second will be to Hollywood this summer to audition for NBC's "The Sing Off."

For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky.

(Soundbite of song, "Come Fly with Me")

MAXX FACTOR: (Singing) Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away, up and away. If you can use some exotic booze, there's a bar in far Bombay. Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away, let's get away. Come fly with me, let's float down to Peru. In llama land, there's a one-man band and he'll toot his flute for you. Come fly with me, let's take off in the blue, out in the blue. Once I get you up there, where the air is rarefied.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

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