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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."

The 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."

But 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 appreciative fans.

Their "Astrocapella" 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 IDEA.

"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."

Building 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.

With IDEA funding, group members went to work, writing their own songs and developing then field-testing their products with teachers across the country.

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.

Catchy 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.

Ms. 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 spots.

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.

Mr. 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.

John 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."

Barry 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.

Though 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.

Musically 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."

The 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.

"Ideally 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 audiences."


Laura Tayman is a freelance writer in Crofton.

- No Jumps-

Published August 01, 2005, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright © 2006 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.


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