Eleventh Hour sings its way onto NBC’s ‘The Sing-Off’

Eleventh Hour sings its way onto NBC’s The Sing-Off

NBC audio and camera technicians record members of Eleventh Hour as they entertain an audience in the Fairmont gym before beginning their adventure on “The Sing-Off” in Los Angeles. The Eleventh Hour members are (from left) Anna Townsend, Claire Keathley, Kurt Zimmerman, Colton Jones, Bobby Symes, Kendall Young and Emily Gatlin.

When Kettering residents are looking for good entertainment on TV this December, they’ll want to turn to NBC so they can witness a talented group of Fairmont students and recent grads take the national spotlight.

Although the story has been under wraps for months, Fairmont’s top a cappella group, Eleventh Hour, will be one of only 10 groups featured in the second season of “The Sing-Off,” the network’s mini-series involving a competition among voice-only musical groups. “The Sing-Off” will air in five episodes beginning Dec. 6 and continuing on Dec. 8, 13 and 15, with the finale on Dec. 20.

The first four episodes have already been taped and the the finalists chosen, but the winner will be determined by America’s vote after the fourth episode airs.  An agreement with NBC prevents those involved from revealing who the finalists are. Waiting to learn the outcome, however, only heightens the drama surrounding this once-in-a-lifetime experience for seven Fairmont students.

The adventure begins

Eleventh Hour’s adventure of trials and triumphs led them from Kettering to Chicago and then to Los Angeles. The group began the first public step of their journey in the mid-July heat in front of hundreds of students and community members in Fairmont’s main gym. The event was a send-off for their trip to Los Angeles and a chance for the camera crews to shoot them in their hometown.

The crowd held signs and chanted for their friends in the group. In the spirit of the World Cup, one fan even blew a vuvuzela.

“The community support in this town is fabulous. Thank you so much for coming out,” said Nicole Slamer, a field producer for NBC who filmed Eleventh Hour’s segment of the show. Camera crews circled the floor filming the crowd. Outside, the Eleventh Hour members welcomed people into the gym before the show.

“I’m stoked, very excited. It’s going to be very fun,” said Eleventh Hour’s vocal percussionist, junior Kurt Zimmerman. Soprano Emily Gatlin, who graduated in June, was nervous but excited by the idea that their performance in the gym would be broadcast to millions of viewers. Claire Keathley, the group’s current senior alto, maintained her calm demeanor.

Up in the stands, senior Sarah Lamb beamed at her friends as they warmed up their voices.  “I’m so happy for them; they really deserve this,” said Lamb, who sings in Eleventh Hour this year. “They all work very hard.”

Fairmont Choir Director Brody McDonald welcomed the audience and explained the secretive nature of the event, as the media had not yet gotten word of Eleventh Hour’s acceptance onto “The Sing-Off.” Any posts about the event on Facebook, Twitter or blogs were strictly forbidden. “What happens in this gym stays in this gym, just like Vegas,” joked McDonald to an exuberant crowd. Soon, he introduced “our hometown favorite, Kettering Fairmont’s very own Eleventh Hour,” and the crowd went wild. But how did the group rise to that point in their career?

From Youtube to the Windy City

Eleventh Hour’s road to “The Sing-Off” was a long one. During the casting of the show’s first season, McDonald received an email from one of the producers who had seen the group’s video on Youtube. “They were reaching out to us,” said McDonald.

The singers auditioned for the show’s first season in Chicago at the start of the 2009-10 school year, but they came home empty-handed. “We didn’t know each other very well at that point. We didn’t have our vibe yet,” said 2010 grad Kendall Young, the group’s alto and business manager.

“When we went to the audition and failed the first time, it was a big disappointment,” said junior Colton Jones, lead tenor. “But we used that at every rehearsal to drive our energy.” Their hard work paid off. Later that year, “The Sing-Off” casting director Michelle McNulty emailed the group and asked them to audition for the second season. 

From there it was “go” time. The seven singers set a list of goals, buckled down and prepared three songs to audition on Memorial Day 2010 in Chicago once again. Impressing the judges was no easy task. “If you are forgettable, you’re not going to get on. You have to have something,” said Young, who is pursuing a vocal performance degree at Belmont University.  “They’re looking for a ton of energy, and it’s nice that we had that going in.”

The team proved themselves the second time around, and Young said McNulty was so happy to see them come back that she started dancing during their audition.

McNulty and the producers personally called the singers to tell them they had been accepted onto “The Sing-Off.” “They wanted each of our reactions,” said Jones. “Emily started crying. I was really happy and I called my mom immediately. Claire [Keathley] was at a family reunion and started screaming and looking crazy. We were all really excited.”

Far-away places and famous faces

Following their acceptance, Eleventh Hour’s journey led them to Sony’s Studio 14 in Los Angeles, where they displayed their talents to the stars – literally. “The Sing-Off,” hosted by 98 Degree’s Nick Lachey, has a panel of judges well-versed in the world of vocal performance: Ben Folds, of the Ben Folds Five; Shawn Stockman of Boys II Men; and Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls. Bobby Symes, the group’s bass singer, got to live a dream:  performing for his musical hero. “Shawn Stockman is the reason I sing; he inspired me. He’s my idol,” said Symes, a 2010 graduate. 

Some of the group members expected a world of intense competition and uptight attitudes, but Los Angeles and the vocal performance world were pleasant surprises. “At first we were nervous that people would look down on us because we were younger,” said Young. “But, oh, my gosh, were we wrong. They love a cappella as much as we do, and to see that it’s starting so young and that people are making this a genre people can enjoy – they loved that. They were so encouraging.”

But the work wasn’t without hardships, especially in the fast-paced world of television production. The group has become like family, but Young said the toughest part while in LA was “being around each other 24/7. It tests your character and patience and it’s really humbling.”

The singers also had to deal with a grueling schedule for much of the summer while in LA. They would wake up, catch a quick bite to eat, warm up their voices and be out the door for the studio by 9 in the morning. On the stage, they would work on their moves with choreographer Rosero McCoy, who also choreographed for Step Up, Usher, Beyonce, and, of course, Alvin and the Chipmunks. They also would rehearse the whole group number with the other vocal groups on the show, giving them a chance to get to know other talented vocalists. “Then we’d go back to the hotel at 9 at night and have another rehearsal. Basically, it was a whole day of rehearsing,” said Jones.

For Symes, the hardest part was taking that first step on the plane. “It was nerve-wracking at first. I’d never been on a plane,” he said. Symes added that it took him awhile to get comfortable with such a different environment. “I was pretty nervous at first, but I slowly relaxed and started to enjoy myself.”

“The Sing-Off” vocal arranger Ben Bram confirmed that the Fairmont students adapted well. “This was a new challenge for the group,” he said. “Each and every member rose to the occasion, whether they were offering musical advice, giving performance notes, or giving each other emotional support.” Bram worked with the singers on a near daily basis in LA. He arranged their songs, directed some rehearsals, and helped them develop their articulation, dynamics and a “personal connection to the music.”

Despite being the youngest group in the competition, Bram said Eleventh Hour was able to “not only keep up with the professional and collegiate groups, but sometimes outshine them.”

Bram sees enormous potential and talent from the individuals in the group, but the most important potential he sees is in the existence of the group itself.

“Without the group, these singers never would have gotten to partake in such an amazing experience,” said Bram. “Many of them would never have met each other, or gotten as close as they have.” 

It’s not every day that seven students from Kettering, Ohio, get to be singing stars and belt out their songs on national television. Even more important for the members of Eleventh Hour were their experiences along the way and the lessons they learned. “It’s definitely brought us all closer because we are working hard together. We all have a common goal and we’re all excited,” said Gatlin, pausing before going on stage to sing for the crowd in the gym back in July when their journey began. “Hopefully we do well and everyone likes us.”

And so this adventure for Eleventh Hour has come to an end. And the “Sing-Off” winner is…? Well, you can help determine that by watching the fourth episode and voting.

Click HERE to see more photos from the July rally for Eleventh Hour.  Click HERE for the NBC news release.