« Ed Watson Hired As new Barbershop Society CEO. | Main | Will the real Coasters please stand up? »

June 30, 2005

Barbershop singers converge on Utah

Salt Lake City Weekly (UT):

With what has to be one of the gangliest acronyms ever, the SPEBSQSA—that’s the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America—is hitting Salt Lake City with all its good ol’ fashioned charm. And mind you, they are hellbent on ringing a major chord with the masses. For the fourth time since its inception, the Barbershop Harmony Society is holding its international convention and quartet and chorus competitions right here in Utah. Hosted by its Salt Lake City chapter, The Beehive Statesmen, the six-day affair will welcome hundreds of mild-mannered men ages 16 to 90, who can barely keep their voices contained from all the sheer squeaky-clean excitement.

To understand the greater world of barbershop quartet singing, you must first know that the typical modern barbershopper doesn’t resemble any painting by Norman Rockwell—as everyone you talk to who is involved in the hobby will continually remind you. So then what does a typical barbershopper look like? According to local Chapter President Devon Nish, a typical member “is a man who enjoys music that has probably sung in a church choir or college chorus.” The SPEBSQSA Website mentions that their rank and file are “men of all ages, from all walks of life, who love to sing... [And are] fans and friends who thrill to the sound of harmony...” And Gary Forsberg—vice president for public relations and marketing for the Beehive Statesmen and Saltaires Show Chorus—notes, “Typical barbershoppers are men of good character, of all ages, who like to sing.”

That, though nominally helpful, admittedly does nothing to dispel the myth of four old men sitting around a barbershop harmonizing just for the good American fun of it—or in Nish’s words, “A bunch of drunk guys sitting and singing around a barbershop pole or something. “All anybody really has to do is come and listen,” adds Nish. “It will change the way you think about barbershop, four-part harmony and a cappella.”

When exploring the depths of the modern barbershop world, you also get the sense that straw hats and striped button ups are no longer par for the course. Some quartets go the humorous route of dressing like barnyard animals and hamming it up all the way to first place; others go styling in three-piece suits, immaculate tuxedos or cowboy boots with bolo ties. But, Forsberg is quick to remind with an emphasis on SPEBSQSA’s “P” for “Preservation,” barbershop has its technical side, too. “Barbershop harmony is built around a ‘lead’ singing the melody; the tenor, most often harmonizing above the lead; the bass, singing the low harmony foundation; and the baritone, taking the notes to complete a four-part chord,” Forsberg says by way of definition. “That’s what makes barbershop, without getting too technical. Many songs of the 1890s and early 1900s, from whence the boaters and stripes came, were ideal for that setup, and the image has persisted. We do have as part of our mission, the preservation of the style.”

Although the convention welcomes both participants and the public to enjoy this deeply rooted American pastime, it’s also a noteworthy competition. With about 50 competing quartets and a couple of dozen competing choruses, you can expect the gloves to come off in the heat of four-part vocal battle. “Competition is very intense, and that is what keeps the society moving forward in musical quality and execution,” notes Forsberg. “Of our 800-plus chapters, each goes through divisional and district competitions to qualify to be one of the international competition quartets, or choruses.”

But, remembering the nurturing and civic responsibility of barbershoppers everywhere, Nish notes that although the Saltaires typically do pretty well in competition, and Utah has had a No. 1 quartet in the past, the Beehive Statesmen are very proud of a special award they garner nearly every year. “Our chorus always wins the award for the most activities,” Nish says. “It’s kind of a special award. We participate and are well-rounded in just about everything. We do youth developments and socials and meeting and performances and so forth.” “Part of our mission statement is to keep music education in the schools and community,” adds Forsberg, noting that Skyline High School has a men’s and women’s barbershop group in its musical curriculum. “We sponsor collegiate quartets for district and international competition, invite high school groups to participate with us and support their musical productions.”

To quickly dispel any ideas that barbershopping might be gaining rare popularity with today’s tech-savvy youth, about 75 percent of the Saltaires are over the age of 50. Perhaps that maturity alone can explain the lack of cool/uncool positioning that troubles most of today’s insecure musicians. No, SPEBSQSA didn’t need to go for something shorter and more hip in an acronym like ABS (American Barbershop Society). They knew right off the bat that to be strong in voice, picture perfect in pitch and gleamingly clean in style allows one the ability to unabashedly harmonize promotional sayings like “Keep the Whole World Singing!” without losing the Americana.

Posted by acapnews at June 30, 2005 12:06 AM