Have you been watching The Sing-Off? NBC keeps pushing it as "American Idol meets Glee," which is a good comparison, although it must hurt them like the dickens to have to mention another network's shows. It's a competition that pits a cappella singing groups against one another. The judges are Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men, and some idiot girl from the Pussycat Dolls. I wouldn't have even known about it if my pal Norman hadn't mentioned it, since I rarely watch network television; now I'm glued to my TV every night, wondering who will win the $100,000 prize and the Sony Records recording contract. Right now my money's on Nota, a six-member, all-male group from Puerto Rico -- they are awesome.
Right about now you may be thinking, "Recording contract? A cappella music?" Trust me, there's a vibrant a cappella community out there. CASA, the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America, is sort of the umbrella organization for groups that perform pop, rock, hiphop, etc. sans instruments. The Barbershop Harmony Society supports a different sort of a cappella (Sean and I insist on calling that organization by its old name, The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, or SPEBSQSA [pronounced speb-SKEW-sa], because, well, what a mouthful!). You can find a cappella groups that perform nothing but old English madrigals, Christian music, or classical pieces. A few years ago I spent a fantastic day at the Ford Amphitheatre attending World A Cappaellafest, where something like a dozen groups, including heavyweights Rockapella, The Nylons, and The Blenders, performed for a big, enthusiastic crowd; I even got to meet Deke Sharon, president of CASA and a member of The House Jacks, during intermission! Heaven knows I love me a great vocal soloist, but there is nothing that compares with three-part or greater vocal harmony. The human voice is truly the greatest instrument ever.
I was in choir all though junior high and high school, which probably explains my fondness for Glee, Fox's cheerfully dumb but delightful version of High School Musical. In junior high we had something called Mixed Chorus, a boy-and-girl choir class that anybody could sign up for; I'm still friends with a group of girls, including my pal Lucy, who were tall and stood in the back row of Mixed Chorus. The school also had a girls' honors choir called Cantatrice which wore matching Qiana dresses (main benefit: you could ball them up and leave 'em in a paper bag in your locker) and sang competitively. We didn't dance, but we sure looked pretty in our shiny, wrinkle-resistant dresses up there on the risers. My high school actually had two competitive show choirs, one an all girls' group called New Spirit and the other a mixed chorus called Chanteurs. Both groups sang and danced up a storm, always in hideous matching outfits. (Shudder -- I just had a flashback to the hot pink, off-the-shoulder gowns of my junior year.) We occasionally sang a cappella sogs, but more often than not we had a piano accompanist. Very often, I was that accompanist -- although I loved to sing, my voice was never of the caliber of the best kids in choir, so I was forced to fall back on my years of piano lessons if I wanted to make it into the top group. I got pretty good at turning the pages of my music by myself, although I always preferred having a page-turner do it for me; Lucy says she never minded helping me out, but my sister Mary apparently was terrified of my wrath whenever she got stuck with the page-turner gig. I'm sure I never attacked anyone who was a bit late with the page flip, but it seems my frown may have been quite fierce.
There are a few differences between my high school show choirs and the one on Glee. First of all, I think there are only 10 or a dozen kids in Glee's choir, and that's pretty small for a competitive show choir; there were usually 15 to 20 kids in each of my show choirs, and some of the schools we competed against had even bigger groups. Second, every week both the glee club and all of its soloists manage to get the clearances to perform any song they want; that's probably because Fox has a legal department working away on that detail, whereas at my high school there was only Mr. Maxson, the choir director. Trust me, he never got us the rights to anything like "Rehab." Third, and this is the hugest difference, Glee's choir always seems to have a full rhythm and brass section at their disposal every day in class. On a daily basis, even the top choir at my high school had only . . . me. We added a bass player and drummer to the mix when we competed or put on our big end-of-year show, but usually it was just me plunking away at the old Yamaha upright. I'm a bit envious of the way my old choral department has evolved: I recently came across this video of last's year's Chanteurs performing, and it's a lot more like Glee than I remember!
If you're a fan of the choral sound but are looking for something a bit edgier than clean-cut kids singing safe arrangements of passe pop songs, check out Scala -- it's a 60-member Belgian girls' choir that performs ditties like "Teenage Dirtbag" and "I Touch Myself." Their new single, "Seashell," is very pretty.