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May 5, 2005

Barbershoppers sing in praise of harmony

Washington Times (DC):

It's 7:30 on a Tuesday night at Fairfax High School, and the strains of the B-52s' "Love Shack" are drifting down the hall from the cafeteria. But this is no '80s revival or the whim of some offbeat aerobics instructor. The women strutting their stuff in the lunchroom are the Vienna Falls Chorus. They're barbershop singers, and they're loosening up. Barbershop singers? You mean the same folks who wear the straw hats and the arm garters? Well, not exactly. Barbershop singing today is not quite what your father or your mother may remember. "It's starting to be cool again," says Mike Kelly, who sings bass with the Bowie-based barbershop "This is not your father's barbershop." So get ready for a wall of sound that can raise the hair on the back of your neck. Be prepared for some well-choreographed moves that can turn a housewife into a hoofer in just a few steps.

If you're lucky enough to be a barbershopper, male or female, you can expect a community of supporters for whom age really doesn't matter. Nor does what you do for a living. You don't even have to read music. All you have to do is reach for the ring. That's the ring tone, that elusive chord that, if rightly struck by all members of the four-part harmony group, produces a harmonic overtone that seems to hang in the air somewhere above the singers' heads. "It has a special effect on both the listener and the singer," says Bill Colosimo, music director of the District's Singing Capital Chorus, which boasts about 50 members. "It's not something you can get in another kind of ensemble."

The distinctive sound of barbershop is dependent upon close four-part harmony, with the melody taken up by the second vocal line. The tenor sings above the lead voice, while the baritone and the bass work their magic below it. Magic there is, too, in the Fairfax High cafeteria as the assortment of homemakers, lawyers, government workers and teachers begins singing with a precision, verve, and joie de vivre that professional singers very often lack. "It's such a great group of women," says Alessandra Daigneault, a lawyer from McLean who joined the Vienna Falls Chorus just two years ago. "They come from all walks of life, but they manage to produce this incredible blended sound."

The Vienna Falls Chorus, with some 80 members, is just one of the many chapters of Sweet Adelines International, the barbershop organization for women, that abound in the Washington area. Of course, the men sing too. They have their own chapters under the auspices of the Barbershop Harmony Society, with more than 33,000 singers in the United States and Canada. "It's the largest singing society in the world," says Gage Averill of barbershop singing in general. Mr. Averill, professor of history and culture and dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, is the author of "Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony." Even so, he says of barbershop, "There's a lot of mythology about where it all came from."

According to Mr. Averill, the form is a synthesis of close-harmony practices of German singing groups who began touring the United States in the decades before the Civil War and black styles that would be popularized and bowdlerized in minstrel shows and vaudeville. By the 1880s and 1890s, many black singing groups began to "play" with the close-harmony sound, bending notes and adding a bit of wiggle room to strict time signatures. The result was a new sound, which often could be heard in barbershops in black communities. Black barbers frequently owned and operated their own shops, which opened early and stayed open late, playing host to members of the community who needed a place to sit, relax, discuss politics and, on occasion, sing.

By the late '20s and early '30s, Mr. Averill says, white groups had firmly embraced barbershop-style singing as a way to revisit a real and imagined past. "People were getting nostalgic for the music they heard when they were kids," Mr. Averill says, "but they thought they were singing an American white style." Meanwhile, black people had turned to other forms of a cappella singing, including gospel quartets, doo-wop, and rhythm and blues. "We've kind of re-imagined it as a sort of collective history," Mr. Averill says. "It feeds into our own sense of what the 1890s were like."

So when the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) was founded at the height of the Depression in 1938 by O.C. Cash of Tulsa, Okla., a tax attorney for an oil company, barbershop singing was seen as one way to forestall an uncertain future. The long title, with its forbidding and unpronounceable abbreviation, took a swipe at FDR's "alphabet agencies," which were proliferating at the time. "In this age of dictators and government control of everything, about the only privilege guaranteed by the Bill of Rights not in some way supervised and directed is the art of Barber Shop Quartet singing," Mr. Cash wrote in an April 1938 letter notifying friends of a "songfest" to be held in the Roof Garden of the Tulsa Club. Mr. Cash signed himself "Third Assistant Temporary Vice Chairman," as if to restate his contempt for the country's burgeoning bureaucracy. Today, the organization is more briefly known as the Barbershop Harmony Society, although the nettlesome abbreviation SPEBSQSA is still used. Sweet Adelines, the women's organization named for one of barbershop's signature songs, got off the ground in 1945, after the women saw how much fun the men were having, according to their promotional information.

The men's and the women's organizations still sing the chestnuts. After all, you couldn't really have a barbershop sound without "Sweet Adeline." But new arrangements and new repertoire have updated things. "We're not stuck with just the songs that were sung in 1910," says Carl Costanzo, a bass with the Arlingtones chorus in Arlington. "There's a variety of songs out there." Mr. Costanzo started singing with the Arlington group in the days of the Parkington shopping center, an open-air mall that was located where Ballston Common is now. Back in 1970, the mall had a barbershop and it was there that the chorus members met. Mr. Costanzo was actually plunked into a barber chair for his audition. "It's a true story," he says. "I'm one of the few barbershop singers who actually sang in a barbershop."

Most barbershoppers engage in some form of competition at the district or regional level; some, like the all-male Alexandria Harmonizers, are experts, turning out professional-level performances year after year. Back at Fairfax High School, however, competition seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind. Camaraderie is the order of the day; women greet each other as if they are long-lost pals, and the few toddlers in tow seem to become community property for the duration of the rehearsal. "Everybody loves holding babies," says Maggie Kause, who joined the Vienna Falls Chorus in 1968, making her its senior member. "And we all take the time to get to know one another." Mrs. Kause sings bass, which in a women's group is simply the lowest harmonizing line. She got her start singing barbershop back home in Bemidji, Minn., thanks to her brother, who sang with a men's group. When she returned there while her husband was serving in Vietnam, her brother and sister-in-law urged her to start a women's group. She did and even served as director for a while before the family moved to Virginia and she found Vienna Falls. The group won its first medal shortly after she joined."It's just a thrill to sing in front of people," she says. "And the arrangements today are better than ever."

The distinctive sound of barbershop singing gets its stamp from "close harmony," wherein the four different voices tenor, lead or melody, baritone, and bass explore together to produce just the right combination of notes. Barbershoppers call this "woodshedding" (from the idea of being "taken to the woodshed" to put things right) and they're likely to stay long after the conventional rehearsal ends in order to keep working the notes. "The voices seem to get stronger," says Edward Regnier, a baritone with the Singing Capital Chorus, who admits to staying well past 11 on some rehearsal nights. "If you've really got it locked, it sounds like there's someone up there in the ceiling." The chords that barbershoppers sing are grounded upon a "circle of fifths," which produces the distinctive overtone. "The listener is not aware that he is hearing more than four sounds at once," Mr. Colosimo says. "But there are actually five, six, seven, or even eight notes that are heard but not physically produced by the voice."

The bond between barbershoppers can be as tight as the chords they sing. Many area groups feature mother-daughter or father-son combinations. Women and men who might never have met normally become lifelong friends. In fact, while prospective members need to be able to sing a bit, and do have to audition, barbershoppers are just as focused on the individual as they are on shaping the sound. "We are more likely to take the man as he is," Mr. Colosimo says. "We're a fraternal organization as much as a musical one. We want the man more than we want the voice." Even choruses in competition seem less concerned with beating the opponent than they do about bettering their own performances. Competitions are a great opportunity to meet other barbershoppers and practice a few "tags" the last four to eight bars of a song, ornamented with a fillip, embellishment, special harmony or a change in the meter.

A typical chorus might have 25 or so songs in its repertoire, with a few cycled in or out every year. But most chorus members know hundreds of tags and spend a lot of time simply vocalizing their way through the last sentence or two. For some, it's that freedom to play around with meter and pitch to sing a little bit before or after the beat or stretch out a note past its value, all characteristic of the art's foundations in black America that makes barbershopping irresistible. "I love the way we can bend the rules of time," says Demetri "Dee" Paris, who began singing with the Singing Capital Chorus back in 1958. "Every time we do a tag, I think, 'We owe this to black people.'"

Barbershop has become one of the few truly intergenerational recreational pursuits. The activity has even been responsible for more than a few marriages. Sally Kelly, who sings with the Harbor City Music Company in Towson, Md., met her husband, Mike, because their mothers sang in the same Sweet Adelines chapter in Valley Forge, Pa. Both families moved to the D.C. area. Then the women's group needed a man for a skit, and the rest is the stuff of barbershop lore. "I always say I met my wife in my underwear," says Mr. Kelly, who wore a breakaway suit for his performance. "But I guess we can really thank our mothers."

Today, their children Mark, 13, and Katie, who just turned 11 are "barbershop brats," youngsters so schooled in barbershop performance that they can fall into harmony or pick out the ring even faster than some adults. And of course, children, husbands and wives make up a large portion of the cheering section when it comes time for a competition. "It's become a way of life for us," Mrs. Kelly says. "Our kids think that people just sing all the time." But there are others who know just how special barbershop can be, musically and otherwise. "It's palpable," says Mr. Colosimo, who credits his fellow barbershoppers with helping him through some tough times in his own life. "There's a quality that makes people immediately fall in love with it."

Posted by acapnews at May 5, 2005 12:29 AM