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The hour after hour after hour of practices paid off for Unplugged, La Plata High School’s a cappella group.

The 16-member choir clenched first place in its division at the International Championship of High School a Cappella held Feb. 22 in Plymouth, Mass.

The group will head to New York next month to face off against nine other high school a cappella groups from around the country in the finals.

At the semifinals, the group was fourth in a field of eight to perform at Plymouth High School.

Unplugged — dressed in black and chartreuse, the boys wearing Vans in the riotous green shade — proved to be a bright spot in the contest, said Denise Childers, the group’s founder and director.

Most of the competing choirs were a little more formal, she said, their songs a bit slower with scant choreography.

“Unplugged has a very different style,” Childers said. “We were different, and this time different was a good thing.”

High energy, a set of sing-along pop hits — Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark,” Brian McKnight’s “Back to One” and “Can’t Hold Us” by Grammy darlings Macklemore and Ryan Lewis — along with rambunctious choreography, including a back flip by senior member Patrick Wathen, wowed the audience, Childers said.

Ultimately, entertaining the audience is why Unplugged performs.

They are not performing for the judges, she said she tells the group.

“Try to get the audience behind you,” Childers said.

A standing ovation from the audience is going to stick with the performers long after the words of the judges have been forgotten.

But the judges at the semifinals did have nice things to say including telling Unplugged they were good enough to share the stage with some college groups.

The International Championship of High School a Cappella is the high school version of the International Championship of Collegiate a Cappella, the contest introduced to movie audiences by the film “Pitch Perfect.”

It is La Plata’s first time at the competition, Childers said.

Henry E. Lackey and Maurice J. McDonough high schools also have a cappella groups, said Shelley Mackey, a spokeswoman for Charles County Public Schools.

Lackey’s group, Fully Charged, recently placed first at Singstrong D.C., a high school competition in Reston, Va.

The ICCC and ICHSA are two of the biggest a cappella contests in the world, according to the website of Varsity Vocals, which operates the competitions.

The college groups undergo three rounds including quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, while high school choirs compete in semifinals and finals, the site reads.

It was at Singstrong last year that Unplugged befriended Robert Dietz, a vocal coach and arranger on the television show “The Sing Off.”

Dietz coached the group for about an hour via La Plata’s telepresence equipment about a month ago, Childers said.

He reconnected with them before a Feb. 20 dress rehearsal at La Plata.

“Create the moment,” Dietz advised, beaming into the school’s telepresence classroom two days before the group traveled to Plymouth. “Really commit to it, and go kick some butt.”

Origin story

Childers, an English literature teacher at La Plata, was a founding member of the Treblemakers, an all-female a cappella group at University of Maryland, College Park.

Some Unplugged alumni have gone on to join College Park’s Generics, the all-male a cappella group, Childers said.

For years she talked about starting an a cappella group at La Plata. Her husband John, a government teacher at the school and its varsity baseball coach, told her to just go for it.

“It was pretty informal” at first, Childers said, who five years ago wrangled some of her English lit students she knew could sing into the group.

The idea struck a chord among students, and the following year auditions were held. The Childers’ son Chase, a junior, is a three-year member.

The choir now includes some seniors who are four-year veterans of Unplugged.

Childers calls her husband one of her strongest recruiters.

If he hears one of his students or players singing — it’s high school, and teens are apt to burst into song or rap out of nowhere, Childers said — he’ll suggest they try out for Unplugged.

That’s how freshman Thomas Still, 14, of Port Tobacco wound up in the group.

“I really like singing,” said Thomas, whose solo starts off the group’s set with the Fall Out Boy tune.

“I was in chorus in seventh and eighth grade,” he said. “But I’m in art now.”

Unplugged gives him the opportunity to keep singing.

Parental approval, audience participation

Mike Hilson and his wife Tina attended the dress rehearsal to see their youngest child Joshua, 16, perform.

The Hilsons are no strangers to supporting the arts or spontaneous sing-alongs.

“Like living in a musical,” Mike Hilson said jokingly.

“This is very normal for us,” he said about performing while watching Unplugged pose for group photos following its rehearsal. “His mom and I were always singing in the car. We’d all take parts.”

The family is passionate about the arts. Not only do they enrich a person’s life, there are studies showing that students involved in creative endeavors bring home higher test scores, Hilson said.

The a cappella group also builds a culture of teamwork.

“In a group like this there is not a solo artist,” Hilson said. “They are a team.”

A team that not only relies on each other, but the audience has to be drawn in to the performance for a number to really — well, sing.

“They will feed off your energy,” Childers told the audience before the start of the practice show.

The choir members have to keep their energy levels up. If one flags, they all go down, said Patrick Wathen, 17, (the backflip guy) a senior who, as a lifelong dancer, helps out when it comes to choreographing numbers.

Unplugged took first place at the semifinals for choreography, which Childers and the group work on together.

A cappella singers can’t rely on a guitar solo to take center stage. They have to be “on” for the entire number.

“We create our music with our mouths,” Patrick said. “Each song we sing we make it ourselves.”

Song selection is an important step in creating a performance, Childers said.

The three-song, 12-minute set Unplugged performed proved to ignite the audience in Plymouth.

“If the audience isn’t singing along, it gets really boring for them,” Childers said.

The group doesn’t only perform current hits and Grammy-bait — it performs oldies and doo-wop tunes for fundraisers for local charities such as the Katie Murray Foundation, Relay for Life, Maddie Grace Warrior Princess, Christmas in April, Southern Maryland Women’s League and the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.

Now it is preparing for the April 25 finals.

“We’ll be polishing their performance,” Childers said. “Their performance is great, but there’s a few places that we need to polish — be really, really precise.”

The students also will be keeping their energy levels up, but Childers knows that she has a good group of kids.

“They give every song every single second of their energy and enthusiasm.”



Unplugged lights it up

As of March 5, Varsity Vocals, the organization that owns and operates the International Championship of Collegiate a Cappella and International Championship of High School a Cappella, has a partial list of semifinalist groups that will travel to New York for the final competition.

Among the semifinal winners are Crimson of Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Limited Edition of Port Washington High School in Port Washington, Wis.; Unplugged of La Plata High School; Highlands Voices of Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, N.J.; Soul’d Out of Wilsonville High School in Wilsonville, Ore.; Echo Effect of Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill.; Fusion of Kettering Fairmont High School in Kettering, Ohio; Vega of Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School in Dayton, Ohio; and Mello Divas of Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Fla.



staylor@somdnews.com