YOUNTVILLE — At this concert, the human voice was any and every instrument.
Every vocal range from soprano to deep bass was present and accounted for. So were the sound effects filling the rhythm parts normally reserved for bass guitars, drums and thumping synthesizers. Together, the voices of nearly three dozen boys and girls from Napa, Vintage and American Canyon high schools formed a joyful noise – a rich and intricate one, too – Saturday at the 12th annual A Cappella Extravaganza, the celebration of a musical genre gaining popularity both locally and in the greater pop culture.
From the stage of the Lincoln Theater, the lyrics of “Sing” by the Pentatonix – the group widely credited with bringing modern a cappella into the pop-music mainstream – ran like a fast-moving river from nearly three dozen throats. A massed melody bloomed into three, four, five parts; the vocalists quiet-at-first urging to “sing, sing, sing, sing sing it with your hands in the sky!” boiled over into a climax vibrating across the seats.
Rock, R&B, show tunes, doo-wop – almost every kind of pop music found its voice at the extravaganza, in which several high school and college vocalists showed off their abilities to create dozens of sounds from one tool.
Although popular vocal groups without instruments are at least as old as the Whiffenpoofs of Yale University, which formed in 1909, the past decade has seen the art break out from school campuses onto TV shows like “Glee,” touring acts like Pentatonix, and the film “Pitch Perfect.”
Along the way, what began in 2006 as a family-and-friends gathering of about 50 people in the Napa High auditorium has grown into a festival showcasing not only local teens’ talents, but those of college ensembles and professional performers. Growing attendance in recent years has led Napa High to move the concert north to the Lincoln Theater in Yountville, which sold out its allotment of about 1,200 seats Saturday night.
“It very much mimics instrumental music, only using the voice,” said Dave Ruane, director of Napa High’s Vocal Music Workshop, which organizes the concert as its annual fundraiser. “You’ll hear anything from Michael Jackson to Walk the Moon – maybe even some Andrews Sisters! There’s definitely something for everyone at this event.”
For this year’s event, high school performers shared a bill with VoicePlay, the five-man touring group that rose to prominence after competing in the NBC program “The Sing-Off,” and a cappella groups from the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford and UCLA.
The A Cappella Extravaganza is the reward for hours of weekly practice by local high school singers, who at Vintage High are chosen by instructors and at Napa High are chosen through auditions by school chorus members.
“When I found out, I was really excited,” said Ruby Llewelyn, a Vintage junior and one of the six Vocalettes, who performed both separately and together with their campus counterparts, the five-part VoiceMale. “I just love singing with other people who are good at singing, and when it all sounds good, it’s worth all the hard work. You spend so much time with the group, they become like your best friends.”
The near-endless versatility of the human voice is also the source of the challenge in turning several dozen voices into a seamless whole, according to Mark Teeters, Vintage’s director of choral music.
When teaching a new song to Vintage’s a cappella groups, Teeters usually plays a recording first, then breaks down early rehearsals to one or two melodic lines at a time – sending students home with partial recordings to train them on their vocal parts – before bringing the singers back into a unit for later rehearsals.
A voice is an instrument that requires no fingers, bow or mallet, and such an elemental tool requires an especially keen ear to keep from drifting in key and time, added Liz Amendola, an instructor working with Teeters.
“You can have two violins side by side playing different notes, but when you sing, it’s hard to sing your own part when the person next to you is singing a dissonant part – it takes discipline and a good ear,” she said before the Yountville concert. “The voice has an infinite number of ranges; it’s like a dial without any markings on it.”
“You’re relying on the use of your ear; you’re singing a part that’s different from everyone else on a completely different line,” added Ruane, who is in his fifth year directing Napa High’s a cappella group. “You don’t have a piano to help you find your pitch, so you have to be precise staying in your line. We’re trying to make things sound like a rock song without drums, without a guitar, without a rhythm section.”
Popping sounds formed a solid base for “Shut Up and Dance,” “Rockin’ Robin” and many of the upbeat numbers. But when American Canyon High’s ensemble PDA (Public Display of A Cappella) took a lyrical turn with a Beatles medley of “Blackbird” and “I Will,” their voices became less like band instruments than ethereal strands of song, each tune changing places with its twin in long, effortless breaths.
Finally, the two sets of lyrics coasted to a gentle and airy finish, transformed into the simple beauty of human voices once more.