Before shows like “Glee” and “The Singoff” made it cool to sing in your school’s a cappella group, there was The Chromatics.
The group got its start nearly 20 years ago in a rather unlikely place — NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. Employees who shared a love of music got together to form a 12-member doo-wop singing group.
In 1995, the group officially became The Chromatics and changed its repertoire from doo-wop to pop and modern music.
This Saturday and Sunday, the group returns to the Greenbelt Arts Center for its annual holiday concert; this year dubbed, “Get Your Jingle On.”
“We’ve been doing it more than 10 years now,” says Karen Smale. “It’s become tradition.”
Smale, a website developer at Goddard, and her husband Alan live in Crofton and joined The Chromatics in 1993 before the name change.
“I’ve been singing since middle school, studied voice during high school and was in high school and college choir,” says Smale. “When [I] moved here, [I] didn’t really have an outlet for music.”
The Smales are joined by Padi Boyd, Barry Mahaffey, John Meyer and Deb Nixon. While the holiday show will include some Christmas songs, The Chromatics typical set list is a combination of covers and original music called “AstroCappella.”
“AstroCappella” is a collection of songs about astronomy and science, a project the group started working on in 1998.
“Four members work in space science,” says Nixon. “From that, Karen and Alan were thinking we could make some cool songs out of this and it sort of took off.” No pun intended.
Nixon, of Greenbelt, works in computer networking for a Washington, D.C.-based law firm but says she always wanted to be an astronaut growing up.
“AstroCappella” has taken on a life of its own, spurring a series of CDs and accompanying educational materials for science teachers.
“Teachers love these things,” says Nixon.
“We think science education is very important and this is one way to take the scariness out of science or math,” adds Smale.
The Chromatics have traveled up and down the East Coast performing at meetings for science teachers, folk festivals and even a few science fiction conventions.
When they’re not educating through original songs of their own, The Chromatics cover other well-known tunes.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that the best covers are something the audience will recognize, something we like to do but with a little bit of a twist,” says Nixon.
That Chromatic “twist” sometimes includes adding a few dance moves to enhance a performance.
“We put a little humor in it,” adds Smale.
In the past, The Chromatics have managed to work the Macarena into their musical numbers, and Nixon says the group hopes this year to put the dance inspired by viral video sensation “Gangnam Style” somewhere in the show.
“...You have to be willing to make a fool out of yourself or look like an idiot,” says Nixon.
But The Chromatics’ musical arrangements are nothing to joke about. The group has released six CDs with countless covers of contemporary songs, original music and “AstroCappella.”
Though the six members of the group live in four different cities, The Chromatics rehearse once a week, working on covers like Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life,” a favorite of both Nixon and Smale.
The group starts arranging Christmas music in the summer for its annual holiday show.
“We always try to bring a couple of new pieces,” says Nixon. “For [Greenbelt] especially.”