17 January 2011

music monday: my beef with barbershop

Last week, I decided to try something new.  And like most of my off-the-cuff adventures, it was, well, interesting...

 See, the thing is I wanted to join a choir here in Pensacola.  I've been missing singing in a group a lot lately.  I apparently missed the auditions for the classical choir that sings with the symphony, so I thought doing a 180 from that kind of music might be good for me.  Therefore, my Tuesday night this past week was spent with a chapter of the Sweet Adelines International.  Yes, I delved into all-female barbershop singing, and I walked away a bit confused and slightly scarred.

When I showed up, it was of course all old women (and I mean OLD).  There was only one gal remotely close to my age, who brought her 2-year-old and referred to herself as a "barbershop brat."  Where are all the people my age?  All those people I sang with in college?  Can they please join some choirs outside their church already so I stop sticking out like a sore thumb?

Anyway, besides the expected age gap, they first ran a voice placement test on me.  They cut my range test off at an E, which is only the top of the staff.  In hindsight, I should've read more into that.  They tried to get me to sing "Happy Birthday," but I refused because I hate that song and it doesn't show off any of my vocal assets.  I chose "My Country 'Tis Of Thee" instead.  I sang it in my head-voice soprano, and then they made me sing it down the octave.  (Weird?  Yes.)

They put me on the voice part called "Lead."  I had no idea what this meant.  When I actually got the music score in my hand, I was able to see the voice parts.  From top to bottom on the staff, there was Tenor, Lead, Baritone, and Bass.  Umm, I thought there were only women here?  Those are dude voice parts.  I guess women's barbershop means pretending to be a man?  The Baris and Basses were indeed reading Bass clef (which I have never done).  I found it really odd that women's barbershop made no concessions for actually being female.  (And I loathed the thought that my high A would be completely worthless here.)

We split into sectionals and learned our parts.  The Lead part?  Yeah, it's just the freakin' melody.  And it was pretty far down in my range, a lot of the notes sitting beneath the staff in traditional Alto range.  I was starting to come down with a cold, but either way my voice hated singing in this range.  Looking at the Tenor part, it seemed like more of a Soprano 2 (my usual part), and I found it odd they didn't put me there.  This one woman (a "snowbird" who comes down to FL for the winter and hangs out with the chapter here during that time) explained to me that there was only one tenor in this entire group (about 20 singers).  And that to do that part, you can't have any vibrato at all.  Well, that explains it.  (They tested my vibrato in the voice placement, and um, it didn't go so hot.)

The snowbird-lady also explained to me the over-arching goal of barbershop harmony is to create overtones, in much the way a piano can.  Great idea, and one day I hope to hear it, but on Tuesday night I just plain didn't.  Actually, all I could really think of the whole time I was there was this scene from The Music Man.

As I learned Tuesday, this really is all you need to know to sing barbershop.
But for me, I think I'll stick with classical singing.

p.s. this is my 100th [published] post!  Awesome!


  1. I haven't listened to the Music Man in years! That was great! Great post too.

    So are you going to stick with the Barber Shop Girls?

  2. Nah, I just sent them a "thanks but no thanks" email. Not quite my style.

  3. Hello CW...

    I am an avid barbershop harmony singer near Boston who stumbled upon your posting and felt compelled to respond.

    First, this is very enlightening to barbershoppers everywhere. We do not often know why our guests do not return, so I am sharing this with many in hopes that we can get better at telling our story.

    Second, I hope that you will be willing to tell the ladies that you sang with about your experience. You are exactly the kind of member that they want and need, and they should know what they need to provide you, and women like you to make it more comfortable to belong to their great organization.

    Third, from my perspective, while this group may not be the best match for you, it seems like it will give you an outlet to be musical again, it a way that is much more portable than classiscal singing, and with an organization that is as much a sorority as it is a musical ensemble. You may be surprised by the friendship that you gain with women 2-3 times beyond your age. The music seems to level the age playing field. When practicing harmony, it all goes away.

    Next, I believe that as a musician (and you sound way more talented than I) that you will find the art form challenging and rewarding as you dive into it. Yes, the lead is the melody, but it more complex arrangements, the melody moves from part to part. It is the easiest to sing, but the hardest to sing well. Yes, women have basses (singing like men) and men have tenors (singing like women). I cant explain it in music theory terms, but there is something about the spread of the chord that makes the sound exciting.

    You should sing the part where you feel comfortable and able to express the music as it moves you. If the women do not let you do that, then it is the wrong group. I would rather have you in my group singing with vibrato than not at all. With the talent that you have, you will eventually hear how your voices fits with the ensemble sound, and make the adjustments that you feel to be necessary.

    I love the Music Man clip. We pride ourselves on converting non singers into singers, so that clip represents us more than you know. However, we are able to challenge singers at all levels. In fact, the Buffalo Bills, the quartet in that movie were amateurs like me when they started. They just honed their craft in a way to get themselves on tv shows and movies.

    Here are some other samples that you may enjoy of groups performing at various levels

    These are friends of mine (Snapshot!) and the lead is a Navy man(I think submariner too?)..so I thought it would be fun to share with you.
    They representing our area in the International Collegiate Championship.

    This is the group (from Sweden) that one. As you listen, keep in mind that English is NOT their primary language


    Here are my friends from Sweet Adeline's in Boston demonstrating how I think that the bass can be effective without being overly masculine
    sorry for the lag

    Here is one of the top women's choruses, again being very musical, and very feminine

    And finally, one of my favorite male quartet performances ever, Crossroads, performing Lucky Old Sun


    So I hope that you see that it can be a lot of different things, and it will take some time for you to dive in and decide which way to take it.
    And I hope that you DO dive it. It will be great to have you as part of the barbershop harmony family.

    Stay Tuned!
    Michael Klein
    Barbershop Harmony Society
    Lowell, MA Chapter