Port High’s vocal jazz ensemble wins its fourth a cappella semifinal in five years and is headed back to New York to sing for the title of best in the nation
Port Washington High School’s vocal jazz ensemble has done it again.
For the fourth time in five years, Limited Edition won a semifinal round of the country’s premiere a cappella competition, and for the first time the group did it on its home stage in front of a sell-out crowd.
The 16-member group finished first among eight teams at the Varsity Vocals International Championship of High School A Cappella in the Port High auditorium Saturday night.
“The auditorium can hold 799 people, and there were just a few open seats in the corners,” Choral Director Dennis Gephart said. “I would call that a sold-out show. The crowd was amazing.”
The semifinal win earns the group another trip to New York City, where it will compete for the title of the best a cappella group in the nation on Friday, April 25, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
Limited Edition won semifinal competitions in 2013, 2012 and 2010, when it also won the championship in the Big Apple.
A record like that is bound to instill confidence, but with the increasing popularity of a cappella and constantly emerging talent at the high school level, members of Limited Edition know not to take anything for granted. In fact, they were a little nervous going into Saturday’s competition, Gephart said.
Having their practice schedule disrupted by winter weather that closed school for three days in January didn’t help.
“The things these kids did from January to February with three snow days was really amazing,” Gephart said. “They were still changing things the day of the competition.”
Then there was the myth of the home-stage curse to overcome.
“There’s kind of a stigma to being the home group,” Gephart said in January. “In all the years we competed in Illinois, the home group never won, so the kids are a little nervous.”
Limited Edition was the sixth group to perform, and after nailing a high-energy, technically sound performance, its members started to breath a little easier, right up until the last group took the stage.
“The kids were very, very scared at the end,” Gephart said. “They thought the last group was outstanding. They were saying, ‘I just know we got second.’”
The judges disagreed. Limited Edition earned 413 points, compared to 359 scored by runner-up Guys & Dolls of Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill.
Judges score technical aspects of the performances according to set criteria, then are able to award additional points for groups they simply like best.
“They’re kind of like gut-feeling points awarded to the groups the judges think are the best,” Gephart said.
All five judges picked Limited Edition as their favorite, Gephart said.
“The kids (from Limited Edition) were awesome,” Gephart said. “They had more energy than any group out there.”
So what is Port High’s secret when it comes to producing top a cappella groups?
“My wife asked me the same question,” Gephart said. “Honestly, I don’t know.”
A lot of Limited Edition’s success has to do with the ability of talented individuals — selected each year through tryouts — to meld into a cohesive group that maximizes the strengths of each member, Gephart said.
“The kids love singing, but they have to learn how to sing together,” Gephart said. “A lot of it is finding the little problems, the strengths and the weaknesses, then fixing the problems or hiding them.”
For group members, a lot of time is spent watching and critiquing videos of their practices.
“We stole that one from football,” Gephart said.
The group undoubtedly owes some of its success to the school’s a cappella history, which dates to 2002 when Gephart brought the contemporary version of the genre to Port High.
“At that time, there were probably half the a cappella teachers there are today,” he said. “I’ve actually never performed contemporary a cappella, but I have the right connections.
“I started by doing it through trial and error, and I’m sure we had some groups that weren’t that good in the beginning.”
That was a long time ago. Four semifinal wins and one championship later, Port High has earned the reputation as an a cappella powerhouse. Limited Edition solidified that reputation Saturday.
“The kids worked extremely hard to get to this point, and they are really excited to be heading to New York,” Gephart said.
Image Information: MEMBERS OF Port Washington High School’s vocal jazz ensemble Limited Edition celebrated after winning the Varsity Vocals International Championship of High School A Cappella semifinal competition on their home stage Saturday, Feb. 8. Members are Brian Arvai (front), (first row, from left) Sarah Litke, Olivia Oftedahl, Danielle Dawson, Carly Pruzina, Maggie Goodwin, Kasey Berger, Dallas Erickson, (second row) Emily Poull, Joel Van Pietersom, Daniel Gardner, Triston Williams, Victoria Micketti, (back row) Aidan Wojciehowski, Sean Haley, Randy Niffenegger and Choral Director Dennis Gephart. Photo by Sam Arendt