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June 18, 2007

One Place Where Everything Is Harmonious

New York Times (NY):

Some guys like to play golf in their free time. Others prefer fishing. And then there are those fellows whose hobby involves getting together with about 85 other men to sing barbershop harmony. For 55 years, the Westchester Chordsmen, an a cappella men’s chorus, has been performing doo-wop, Broadway show tunes, traditional, gospel and contemporary songs, all arranged in four-part harmony for tenor, lead, baritone and bass.

Their music can be upbeat or strangely haunting. The dozens of voices blend into a smooth sound that — if you close your eyes — can sound like only four men singing. The Chordsmen look like they’re having a great time and make it all seem effortless. But don’t be fooled. All this takes discipline and practice. Chorus members can be as competitive as the fiercest weekend warriors. The group is ranked in the top 4 percent among all 825 chapters of the national Barbershop Harmony Society. Last month, the Chordsmen won the overall championship for their division. Judged on their singing, presentation and musical quality, the chorus received its highest scores in decades of competition.

So who are these men? The youngest member is 20; the oldest is 80. A few have been singing with the group for 50 years. Their members include lawyers, accountants, a dentist, an I.R.S. agent, some retired I.B.M. executives, a personal trainer, an appliance repairman, teachers — pretty much a cross section of Westchester County.

The chorus culture can seem a little, well, offbeat. Alan Fennell, of Shrub Oak, a member for 34 years, jokingly describes basses as “God’s chosen people.” As for baritones, he says, “they’re not the smartest — they have to sing the notes nobody else wants.” The group’s president, Bill Kruse, signs his e-mail messages, “Chord-ially.”

The men harmonize off the stage as well as on it. When a Chordsman is in the hospital, his singing buddies visit. If a family member dies, the group will sing at the wake or the synagogue. “This is my second family,” Mr. Fennell said. “People come from all walks of life, and they all come here to sing. There is a lot of camaraderie, because they’re all down-to-earth, nice guys.”

The chorus performs frequently for charitable organizations. They can also be hired, for $60 to $70, to arrive on someone’s doorstep for Valentine’s Day. A quartet clad in tuxedos and red vests will deliver roses and sing love songs. “If the tears come, we know we did a good job,” said Stephen Bartell, a five-year member from Larchmont. “When we sing for a man, he usually can’t wait for us to finish.”

Alan Ferris, of Croton, the vice president for membership for the group and a member for 12 years, said that the Chordsmen strike a balance between being sociable and competitive. “There are two kinds of choruses,” he said. “You can have a social club that doesn’t care about being professional. The other extreme is all business. They want to win. Then you’ve got choruses that are a mix of the two. We have been able to do that.”

The Chordsmen recently held open tryouts during one of their weekly three-hour rehearsals. Newcomers do not need to be able to read music or have professional experience. Andre Lemond, of White Plains, came to guest night after seeing the Chordsmen perform their holiday show. “It feels like a brotherhood,” Mr. Lemond said, stepping off stage after an hour of practice. “Everyone makes you feel welcome. Usually I only sing in the shower.” Rick Shiels of White Plains, another potential recruit, said he had no voice training but constantly sang “unsolicited” to his family. “They’re technically so proficient,” Mr. Shiels said. “They’re much better than I expected them to be, so it’s a little humbling.”

The last thing the Chordsmen want to be is intimidating. New members are assigned mentors to help them master the music and make them feel comfortable. The group recruits constantly. After placing an advertisement on placemats in local diners, they had a surge in membership.

The advertisement, which read, “Come Sing With Us!” caught the eye of Dr. Carey S. Goltzman, the chief of pediatric critical care medicine at the Westchester Medical Center. He had heard the chorus perform at a benefit for the new children’s hospital. Dr. Goltzman, who used to sing in his college chorus, said that tryouts were nerve-racking, but the payoff has been worth it.

“I find it very therapeutic,” he said. “My group of pediatricians are taking care of the most highly acute and sickest kids in the community. This gives me my bit of escape. These guys couldn’t care less what I do for a living. And when we go out and perform, it’s one of the great joys of my life.”

Posted by acapnews at June 18, 2007 9:55 PM


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