Port Washington — The two boys couldn’t contain their excitement.
It was the end of their freshman year at Port Washington High School, and the choir director had told them to see the counselor about clearing part of their 10th-grade schedule "in case" their auditions had qualified them for the school’s elite a cappella group.
"As soon as the door closed we were jumping up and down and cheering," said Aidan Wojciehowski, a popular student athlete who would later co-captain the football team.
Now Wojciehowski and Brian Arvai are seniors in Limited Edition, one of a growing number of contemporary a cappella groups at high schools nationwide bringing a new sound to traditional music education programs.
To accommodate the interest, the company that puts on the annual high school and college a cappella championships has added two regional high school qualifiers before the national competition in New York in April.
Wisconsin will host its first regional a cappella competition Saturday at Port Washington High School.
"We used to have to beg people to come to buy tickets and come to our (competitions)," said Amanda Newman, executive director of Chicago-based Varsity Vocals. "Now we’re looking at adding more quarterfinals rounds."
A cappella, which refers to singing without instrumental accompaniment, is an old art taken to new heights by reproducing the chords, harmonies and instrumentation of modern songs with just the human voice.
A legion of young fans have discovered a cappella through hit movies such as "Pitch Perfect," which brought attention to competitive a cappella at the collegiate level, and TV shows such as Fox’s musical drama "Glee," which celebrates high school show choir.
Reality television also got into the act, adding hair, makeup and fog machines to a cappella through four seasons of "The Sing-Off," which featured groups from around the country competing for a cash prize and recording contract connections.
A high school group from Oakland, Calif., placed third in the most recent season that wrapped in December.
"I think the appetite for this sort of thing just keeps getting bigger and bigger," Sam Weisman, executive producer of "The Sing-Off," said in an interview. "It started in earnest with Straight No Chaser, and keeps doing well with groups like Pentatonix," which has sold out its upcoming show in Milwaukee.
Students say contemporary a cappella allows them to make a creative mark on popular music by mashing it up in new and interesting ways, such as Limited Edition’s cover of "Straight to My Heart," by Sting.
They also say they feel a greater sense of ownership over the final product, in part because the groups are generally no larger than 14 or 16 people.
"Since there’s less people, you feel more important," Arvai said.
Like in many high school and college a cappella groups, the students in Limited Edition represent a cross-section of interests: They are the athletes and the academics, the go-getters and the getting-by, the students with classical music backgrounds and those who mostly sang in the shower before auditioning.
"I can be who I am without having to worry about looking silly," junior Emily Poull said.
Practicing on stage this week, the students produced a variation of the percussion, chords and lead vocals of Gavin DeGraw’s "Best I Ever Had" — which included thigh slaps and foot stomps.
In competitions, groups get 12 minutes and 10 hand-held microphones to perform their sets, which usually include some staging, or choreography.
Some of the students at Port Washington are so passionate about a cappella that it’s playing into their college-search decisions.
That style of singing has long been a fixture on the college scene — Yale University’s Whiffenpoofs formed in 1909 — but it’s growing there also.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s longstanding all-male Mad Hatters and all-female Tangled Up in Blue have been joined by newcomers Redefined, a co-ed group; Fundamentally Sound, another male group; and Jewop, a culturally Jewish a cappella group.
Lee Stovall, the new choir director at South Milwaukee High School and a UW-Madison alum, helped start Fundamentally Sound.
"What’s really cool about a cappella is that it starts as voices imitating instruments, then you get past that and it’s about, how do we make this song ours?" Stovall said. "You tweak and change and add your own ideas to it."
Stovall advises a group of 14 female students who started an a cappella group in November. Unlike at Port Washington, where students take the vocal jazz/Limited Edition class as an elective, the South Milwaukee girls practice in their free time before school, on weekends or during an advisory period. They’re also in the competition Saturday.
Stovall said the biggest reaction to the new group is from boys who are jealous because there isn’t yet an all-male group.
The Wisconsin School Music Association is considering adding a cappella to its state solo and ensemble competition, but doing so would pose some challenges.
"I think there’s a little trepidation out there because this is not something that colleges are training their music educators in," said Timothy Schaid, the executive director of the WSMA.
Dennis Gephart, the choir director at Port Washington, said arrangements for this type of music were difficult to find even three years ago.
Navigating copyright also can be tricky. Under fair use laws, schools can perform copyrighted songs live in public buildings, but uploading them online is another matter. Another avenue: professional arrangers secure the necessary rights to the music, then sell that product to schools.
Help from the pros
Pro a cappella artists are often jumping in to lend a hand to developing high school programs.
Gephart often invites artists or arrangers he knows to offer critiques of Limited Edition’s performances on their private Facebook page.
"Because contemporary a cappella is defining itself right now, we’re able to try a lot of new things," he said.
Dallas Erickson, a sophomore in Limited Edition, said singing a cappella has a different feel than performing in large-group ensembles.
"Usually in concert choir we sing old Italian songs," he said. "Here we get to re-create stuff that’s on the radio."
Piet Levy of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
If you go
The International Championship of High School A Cappella tournament, Great Lakes semifinal.
Port Washington High School, 427 W. Jackson St., Port Washington, 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets can be purchased online up to 24 hours before the show, remaining tickets will be sold at the door.
The event will feature eight a cappella groups from high schools in Wisconsin and Illinois, and a performance by Marquette University’s Gold ‘n Blues.
The winner chosen that night will advance to the ICHSA finals in New York on April 25.