Barbershop music is like a favorite uncle: sweet and kinda corny, old-fashioned
but surprisingly contemporary at times, able to melt your heart when you least expect it.
The appeal of this American art form is no surprise to those who sing it. For them, the music is nothing less than life-sustaining.
It s why I m 85 years old now, says barbershopper Scott Ritter of Oregon. Music is a part of me, and it s been a part of me for all these years.
Many heads are nodding in agreement and they re not all, not even mostly, those of the stereotypical white guys sporting big mustaches, straw hats, and striped vests. The large barbershop community in this area includes women in sequins and
high school boys in pastel shirts, people in their early teens to those, like Ritter, on the far side of 80.
Northwest Ohio is a hotbed of barbershoppers, says singer Claudia Hole. For probably the last 30 years we have had international quartet champions from this area, time after time.
Both Hole and Ritter are associated with the Maumee Valley Chapter, Seaway Commanders Chorus of the Barbershop Harmony Society legal name the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc. or SPEBSQSA, Inc. Hole, 56, is the chorus musical director; Ritter, who is one of its oldest members, has been singing barbershop for longer than Hole has been alive 62 years.
If you do it right, you get goosebumps, Ritter says.
The Nashville-based Barbershop Harmony Society reports it has more than 30,000 singers in more than 800 chapters in the United States and Canada, including the Maumee Valley, Black Swamp, Northwest Ohio, and Monroe North affiliates in this area.
Likewise, Tulsa-headquartered Sweet Adelines International claims a worldwide membership of nearly 27,000 women who sing in more than 600 barbershop choruses. Region 17 northern Ohio, southeast Michigan, southwest Pennsylvania, and northeast Indiana has 20 choruses, 38 quartets, and more than 820 members. Among them is the Pride of Toledo Chorus, a 65-member powerhouse that has won the last nine regional competitions in which it has participated, and has placed in the Top 10 at international competition three times.
They ll reach for another regional win at competition next weekend in Cleveland.
Barbershop singers say the musical style named for the place where the tight, four-part harmony was frequently sung in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is thriving and continuing to evolve.
Although no one can say exactly when or where barbershop music began, says the Sweet Adelines Web site, the growth of the tradition was certainly aided between the 1860s and 1920s by the types of songs popular at the time songs characterized by sentimental lyrics and uncomplicated melodies that could be harmonized with a variety of four-part chords.
Today s repertoire includes much more recent songs that lend themselves to the barbershop style, explains Phil Schwan, 31, of the Voices of Harmony in Bowling Green.
You won t hear barbershop arrangements of rock and roll or rap. More likely would be songs from the 1950s such as the Everly Brothers Bye Bye Love ; 1960s hits such as The Chiffons One Fine Day and Mary Wells My Guy ; and Disney tunes such as Can You Feel the Love Tonight from the 1990s The Lion King.
Voices of Harmony is the performance chorus of the Northwest Ohio Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society. Mr. Schwan, of Lyons, says the group has about 60 members, ranging in age from a young teen to men in their 70s.
Whether sung by men or women, barbershop s a capella harmony consists of tenor, lead (the melody), baritone, and bass. The women sing everything up an octave, says Hole, but the chord structure, which is very important, is the same.
Female barbershoppers also tend to put more emphasis on showmanship through choreography, bold and sparkly costumes, and makeup, she observes.
In the full chorus, as opposed to a quartet, the music director decides how to use the individual voices, says Pat Galvin, 56, of Maumee, president of the Pride of Toledo Chorus. We have five tenors, around 30 leads, 10 baritones, and 20 bass, she says.
One of the ways that barbershop differs from other four-part harmony or group singing is in the tenor s part above the melody, says Fred Schaefer, 67, of Maumee. In choir music, for example, the melody is usually the top, he adds.
Another characteristic is that the style is sung on an emotional basis rather than a note basis, Schaefer says. It s the message and the feeling that matter If there s a half or quarter-note, we may not give it that value or we may give it more.
One of the great joys of barbershoppers is to lock and ring a chord.
As Schwan explains, It actually has to do with the physics of sound. The sound waves will create overtones and undertones. You have four parts and the registers go from lowest to highest. If you have a chord you re singing and it s locked, you will hear other notes higher and lower than are actually being sung.
You can hear and feel when you re singing with three other people when those chords lock together. It s exhilarating, he says.
Hole says she has called it a religious experience. It hits your soul. It impacts your entire being.
Camaraderie, the joy of singing and entertaining, and the thrill of achieving that ultimate locked and ringing chord are among the reasons singers fall under barbershop s spell. In an effort to preserve their beloved musical form through a new generation of singers, the men s and women s international organizations have established educational programs, summer camps, and competitions for young people.
We support the Young Women in Harmony program, we provide scholarships for young women to go to harmony camps, and we have invited them to perform with us, says Galvin of the Pride of Toledo.
Whitmer High School sent three girls and two boys quartets to barbershop competition this spring. One of the boys groups won first place.
Whitmer choral director Randy Baughman, 50, an international champion barbershopper, says he doesn t have to twist any arms to get students involved. Most of them are pretty much begging me to give it to them, he says. It s different than just four-part choral music. It creates more excitement in the way it s arranged.
The kids were so enthusiastic that they came to school during their spring break to practice, Baughman notes.
Compared with those students, Jim Slagle, 65, of Swanton got a late start as a barbershopper. The retired Ohio state trooper and secretary of the Seaway Commanders is in his fifth year with it. His wife took him to a rehearsal, the members sang to him, and I said, I m hooked.
Barbershop harmony may sound pudding-smooth and effortless, but it s a challenge, the singers say. You have to be devoted, you have to learn your part, you have to learn to stick to your part, says Nancy Strouss, 68, president of the Sisters in Song Chorus in Lima and a Sweet Adeline since 1972.
But do you have to have a good voice?
Hole, a music teacher at Toledo s Walbridge Elementary School, says if you don t have any physical issues that would pose a challenge hearing loss or a vocal cord problem, for example you can learn the skills to sing.
I ask people, Can you speak Russian? They say no. I say, why not? They say, because I never learned. Music is the same way.
For more information: Pride of Toledo Chorus, www.prideoftoledo.org; Maumee Valley Seaway Commanders, www.harmonize.com/mvsc; Voices of Harmony, www.thevoicesof harmony.org.
Contact Ann Weber at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6126.