OAKLAND -- Vocalists sometimes had to audition two and three times to make it into Vocal Rush, the a cappella ensemble at Oakland School for the Arts. Making the cut was a dream come true for some of them.
But as hard as they worked at school, the teenagers never expected to be singing for millions of TV viewers on NBC's Sing-Off. Or that on Monday they would win third place over older and more experienced performers. Or that they would become a favorite among viewers from around the world -- including one of the best-known champions of a cappella, Deke Sharon.
"You're not killing the game, you're rewriting the book," said Sharon, who also served as producer and arranger on the Sing-Off as well as other TV shows and films.
A cappella is challenging because the performers have to maintain a balance between standing out and blending in, the Vocal Rush performers said.
The result when it works is "a beautiful sound," Jada Banks-Mace, 16, said.
It was hard, though.
"But we didn't want to fall behind," she said. "The competition was being the best possible not against other groups."
From the first song they performed, "Bottom of the River," to the last, "Roar," the a cappella ensemble impressed the judges.
"I feel like a proud uncle," Sing-Off judge Shawn Stockman said after Monday's performance.
"I see so much potential," the former Boyz II Men vocalist added. "I loved you in the beginning. I loved you in the end."
His fellow judge, singer-songwriter Ben Folds, held Vocal Rush up as example of why keeping arts in schools is so important.
"The data has shown us that test scores improved profoundly when academic classes are peppered with music classes," he wrote on his blog. "Students, like the young people of Vocal Rush, breathe life into those stats."
For Monday's performance, Folds performed "Little Drummer Boy" with Vocal Rush.
The judges didn't spare the criticism though when warranted, making the face-to-face critiques "nerve-racking," according to Jordan Holly, 18.
The ensemble never let it show. They had to keep their "game face" even on the really rocky days, Holly said.
As 17-year-old Emma Stumpf put it, "You can't be afraid."
Despite their age -- the oldest being 18 -- Vocal Rush singers had several years experience competing and performing experience before the Sing-Off. The group is the two-time winner of the International Championship of High School A Cappella. And one of the soloists, Sarah Vela, won a Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award for Best High School Solo.
Vocal Rush and the Sing-Off were life-changing events, McKenna Lindell-Wright, 16, said.
"It sounds corny but it's true."