|A capella group's songs help teach math and science|
By LAURA TAYMAN, For The Capital
Their work is truly out of this world, both musically and physically.
They are The Chromatics, a unique a capella group whose members happen
to be some of the greatest scientific and tech minds around. Karen and
Alan Smale of Crofton are just two of this six-member vocal ensemble
who have been performing for appreciative audiences both here and
across the country since the early 1990s.
"We have a more contemporary pop style," explained Mr. Smale. "We are nothing like a barbershop or madrigal style group."
group has an impressive repertoire, singing everything from the Beach
Boys' "Good Vibrations" to the B-52's "Love Shack" and even patriotic
pieces like "America the Beautiful."
they are perhaps most well-known for their efforts in making the
complexities of astronomy and physics more understandable and just
plain entertaining for science students, their teachers and many
project began one day when Mr. Smale and fellow "Chromie" Padi Boyd,
both astrophysicists for NASA, were discussing recent grant recipients
of NASA's Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy program, or
"We knew of the research that proves
a connection between music and memory," Mr. Smale said. "We also knew
there is still a perception among some students that math and science
are subjects to be feared and avoided."
on the concept of the old "Schoolhouse Rock" program - in which
millions of kids learned grammar, mathematical, and historical facts
through entertaining musical interludes on Saturday morning TV - the
Chromatics developed "Astrocapella." It's a classroom-ready collection
of upbeat pop songs, lesson plans and background information on
subjects like the sun, the moon, X-rays and gamma rays, nuclear fusion,
black holes and quasars for middle and high school classrooms.
IDEA funding, group members went to work, writing their own songs and
developing then field-testing their products with teachers across the
The materials, released in 1998,
are now in widespread use and the group uses the musical numbers often
in performances for scientific and educational conventions, as well as
their regular gigs at local festivals and concerts. Their efforts have
been featured on CNN, PBS and National Public Radio.
melodies and clever lyrics abound in songs such as "A Little Bit of
Rock" (about meteors) and the "HST Bop" (about the Hubble
Space Telescope) and have made fans out of scientists as well.
Astronaut John Grunsfeld even took a copy of their "AstroCappella" CD with him during his flight on the space shuttle Discovery in December of 1999.
Perhaps their success is related to the close-knit camaraderie of the six performers.
Boyd is the closest thing to being the musical director of the group,
as well as one of the songwriters and lead soprano. Deb Nixon, by day a
computer specialist at a law firm, often sings lead and tends to be the
group's arranger, playing the piano to get the group through rough
Karen Smale also works at NASA as a Web designer and programmer.
"She is our real switch hitter who can sing many parts," said Ms. Boyd.
"She is an awesome lead, too, and looks marvelous doing it," added Ms. Nixon.
Smale is the bass, performing what he describes as the "doom boppa
dit-dit" role, and serves as business manager as well. His rendition of
the novelty "I'm Too Sexy" tends to be an audience favorite.
Meyer, the baritone, is a mild-mannered satellite engineer by day, but
a talented techno-song writer at night. "He is so bright, we call him
Mr. Smarty Pants," Ms. Nixon explained. "But he can do percussive
sounds like nobody's business."
Mahaffey, tenor, is the newest member of the group. An architect and
urban planner, he is valued as a vital piece of the group's jigsaw.
"He has a phenomenal voice; great tenors like him are a rare breed," Ms. Nixon said.
none has a voice that has been classically trained, that is the reason
their group is so vocally tight, according to Mr. Smale. "It wouldn't
work if we had a voice that really stuck out," he said.
the group is cohesive, but socially as well. "We all love each other
now," said Mr. Smale. "Sometimes we spend more time talking than we
should, losing valuable rehearsal time."
group has since released a second "Astrocapella 2.0" with songs about
the planets for even younger students, and continues to perform at
various local and national events and give educational workshops. And
though they love what they do, they aren't quitting their day jobs.
we would love to be nationally famous," said Mr. Smale. "But we all
have good jobs, some with kids, so that is not too feasible. Right now
we just like to travel and perform, getting great responses from our
Laura Tayman is a freelance writer in Crofton.
- No Jumps-
Published August 01, 2005, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright © 2006 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.