In a Victorian mansion near the University of Southern California, 14 students form a loose circle in the living room. Will Harris starts them off, laying down some vocal percussion by making rhythmic sounds through his lips like a toddler pretending to be a motorboat. Ben Bram and David Morgenthaler bring the bass, singing a repeated “ba-doom-doom, ba-doom-doom.” Several young women chime in with harmonic ah-oohs, and then comes Dan Payson-Lewis over all of them with the melody: “Can anybody find me somebody to love?” All the while, the 2008 SoCal VoCals are bouncing on their toes, riding the adrenaline rush of the century.

The song, “Somebody to Love,” was one of Queen’s major hits based on a gospel choir arrangement in the ’80s. Now it’s in the repertoire of SoCal VoCals, a USC a cappella group and recent champion of the 2008 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

They are part of a growing number of college students reinventing the tradition of singing without instruments. SoCal VoCals were one of six student a capella groups performing at USC’s annual “All Hail A Cappella” concert on Sept. 7, which filled Bovard Auditorium with more than 1,000 fans.

This isn’t a traditional glee club, barbershop quartet or choir. No flashy vests or tacky finger snapping. These are students bringing a modern iPod sensibility to vocal harmony.

They offer intricate arrangements of recent rock, pop, hip-hop, R&B and country. “When I Get You Alone,” “Movin’ On,” “This Love,” as well as songs by Kelly Clarkson and Pink are fair game.

“A capella is no longer about doo wop and blues,” Bram, a junior and SoCal VoCals’ music director, says. “It’s all about the entertainment factor. We spend months trying to find that perfect song and seeing how different talents within the group can come together.”

After a four-month journey competing in the ICCA tournament, the SoCal VoCals proved they mastered the art of collegiate a capella when they brought home the coveted title of Grand Champion. But when the VoCals lost seven senior members this year, it was time to recalibrate.

Every semester, the SoCal VoCals hold auditions on campus to find fresh, new voices. The two weeks that SoCal VoCals spend recruiting and holding auditions is perhaps the most intense time of the year. Group members get very little sleep between recruiting, auditioning and deliberating – as evidenced by cans of Red Bull and coffee cups scattered around the Taper Hall audition room.

“Our auditions were more competitive this year than ever,” Adam Hutchison, junior baritone and business administration major, says. “We had 160 people try out and, after a series of auditions and call backs, we only took two new members.”

But once you’re in, you’re a “VoCal for life.” This highly selective process contributes to the SoCal VoCals’ unique group dynamic.

A quirky sense of humor seems to run through the college a cappella scene, but Bram proudly says the VoCals are “super cheesy.” And it’s this cheeseball attitude that gives the VoCals their warm, welcoming vibe, yet prestigious reputation.

Although the SoCal Vocals won’t be flying to New York this year to claim another championship title, they have plenty of exciting events in store. Halloween and Christmas concerts are on the agenda with another two shows scheduled for the spring.

The group is also preparing for their Spring Break tour to promote its sixth studio album. The new release features all three songs from the ICCA Championship performance and will be available soon on iTunes.

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