A cappella singing is an art as old as music itself.
“The first instrument anyone ever had was their voice,” said Jason Caffarella of Rezonate, which will perform Saturday in Olympia as part of the Northwest Harmony Sweepstakes, an a cappella singing competition.
Rezonate, based in Eugene, Ore., won last year’s Northwest event — and came in third in the nationals. The group will return to perform at this year’s regional competition, which will feature eight groups competing to make it to this year’s nationals.
“Sometimes, people think a cappella singing is something fresh and different, but it’s not really fresh and different at all,” Caffarella said, pointing to a cappella’s start as music in the church.
But as the saying goes, everything old is new again. And there’s new excitement about a cappella singing this year thanks to NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” a reality show based on the sweepstakes.
“We’ve all been talking about this,” said Gary Witley, artistic director of Masterworks Choral Ensemble, which hosts the event, part of a national series of competitions. “I don’t have a TV, but as I understand it, the show was a big success, so there is a lot more mainstream awareness of a cappella singing.”
Producers of “The Sing-Off” are looking to Harmony Sweepstakes to provide contestants, Witley said. Last year, the all-female group Max Factor, which won the sweepstakes, was a contestant.
“I’ve seen a lot more buzz on the Internet,” Caffarella said. “People are discussing the art of a cappella music a lot more. Whether people were pro or con on the show, it has generated a lot of interest in a cappella, in contemporary stylings of mostly pop tunes.”
In the last few years, only five groups have competed in the Northwest, Witley said. This year, a dozen vied for the competition’s eight spots.
“We have a tremendous amount of variety,” he said. “I’ve been telling everybody that this show probably is going to be the best show in recent memory.”
Among those competing are three past winners of the Northwest regionals: The Baudboys, Realtime and V-Chords. The regional winners are not permitted to compete the year after their win; instead, they perform a long set of music after the competition, while the judges deliberate.
In recent years, the Northwest competition has been dominated by all-male groups. This year, though, competitors include Absolute, an all-female group in the style of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Crosspoint, a mixed group that does jazz and gospel arrangements of church music.
Rounding out the lineup are Shadywood Boys, Six4One and Strangers in Harmony.
The judges select winners based not only on musical ability but also on presentation. “There are two aspects to a performance — how does it look and how does it sound,” Witley said.
Timing is important, too. Each group gets 10 minutes to perform — and absolutely no more.
“The groups are cautioned that they need to time their sets, and they also need to have an exit plan,” he said. “If something happens and you run longer, you need to have a way to bring it to an end.”
The groups get 1-minute, 30-second and 10-second warnings that their time is running out.
“If you go over time, you can’t win the event, because you’re automatically dropped down one place,” Witley said.