It was only last year that vocal music teacher Lisa Forkish came to Oakland School for the Arts, a selective charter school in the city's Uptown district, and persuaded 16 students to audition for high school a cappella. The hardworking vocalists -- students who were willing to take a chance on a new teacher and a challenging art form -- didn't take long to find their collective sound.
With a wild-card entrance to the finals and only seven of their 11 members competing, Vocal Rush won the International Championship of High School A Cappella last month.
Monday night, the singers and some of their parents and siblings celebrated with cake, sparkling apple cider and video footage of their performance in New York City. Later, they crowded around a laptop, watching the moment -- captured in a wildly shaky family video -- when the winner was announced.
"Watching it, you just get flashbacks," said De'Zhanice Kirtdoll, a sophomore. "It's, like, indescribable."
Onstage in matching pencil skirts and royal blue blouses, the girls collapsed into one another in shock and euphoria. They screamed and hugged.
After all, they had been preparing themselves not to cry in public; it had not been their best performance.
"After their set, they were a mess. I was backstage with them, trying to calm them down," Forkish said. "I told them they weren't allowed to cry onstage when they lost, if they lost."
The group normally has 11 members, but four of them, including all of the boys, had other commitments and couldn't compete. So, with three weeks to go, Kirtdoll, Vivian Allen, Sabrina Chaco, Domine Ezechukwu, Alexandra Harris, Kyana Fanene and Sarah Vela learned new songs.
This was the first time an all-female group won the competition, Forkish said.
A cappella, an Italian term, means singing without instrumental accompaniment. Unlike in a traditional choir, an a cappella singer is often the only one on a given part -- and that part is sometimes not a human voice at all. Vocal Rush singers beatbox. They sing trumpet, saxophone, synthesizer, flutes and strings -- all while moving in unison.
"Being your own instrument and shining through, that's pretty nice," said Harris, a senior.
The singers, like their classmates, live in cities throughout the region, including Hayward, Richmond and San Leandro. Other members of Vocal Rush are Christopher Cobbs, Brenden Foster, Dejanae Parks and Napoleon Samad.
Because there are so many parts, Forkish doesn't spend rehearsal time teaching the students the notes. She sends them home with recordings of herself doing the part. It's up to the students to come to class prepared. And that, the musicians say, takes a lot of work -- and courage. A cappella can make you feel vulnerable, the students said, because there might be no one else singing the same thing.
"It just changed my perspective of music, totally," Ezechukwu said.
It has also brought the group, and its director, close. Last summer, after knowing Forkish for just six months, eight of the students attended her wedding in Yosemite National Park. As the couple walked back down the aisle after the ceremony, the students jumped up from the back row and serenaded them with a rendition of "More Today Than Yesterday."
"I am so proud of these students," Forkish said. "They constantly amaze me."