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A Tag-along’s Guide to the Harmony Universe

Every August, the Barbershop Harmony Society holds Harmony University, a weeklong music education workshop, on campus.

I decided it was time to find out a litlle bit more about the hundreds of barbershop Quartet members who descend on Missouri Western every summer and entertain us in four-part harmony while we work. So I arranged to shadow a Harmony U. attendee, and at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 4. the fifth day of the workshop, I lound myself sitting in on their general session in the Potter Hall theater.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences and workshops before. But this was the first general session I had ever been to where the participants were required to b-r-e-e-e-a-the, stretch their tongues, massage their throats and sing. Hearing an entire theater of barbershoppers singing was a great way to start the day!

So that was my first surprise, because I just expected something like general announcements; I didn’t expect to hear a chorus of 500 singing, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do” so early in the morning.

But speaking of announcements, the man who gave the announcements threw in a pretty good pun. In the music world, the term “woodshedding” means practicing, so the announcer said, “How much wood would a woodshedder shed if a woodshedder could shed wood?” Answer: “A chord or two!”

Now I thought that joke was funny, even though I didn’t know what a “Woodshedder” was at the time. But I have to admit that the speakers did say some things in the general session that everyone laughed at but me. I just didn’t know all the barbershopper jargon.

After the general session, I got my second surprise. I would not be following around an individual; I was going to shadow a whole quartet! In all the years that I had seen the barbershoppers come and go, I never realized that there were actually three conference tracks or “colleges” to the workshop: quartets, individuals and directors. In the quartet college, the four members attend every session together. My Quartet was Chordiology, from southeastern Michigan. Dave Spizarny, Rob Pettigrew and Paul Ellinger had been part of Chordiology since it began 22 years ago, and Clifton Dake had been in the Quartet for 12 years. Paul, the lead, owns an insurance agency. Clifton, the tenor, is in industrial sales. Rob is the baritone and an IT guy for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. And Dave, who sings bass, is a radiologist.

The quartet has performed all over the Midwest, and in 2007, they were named champions in their district.

“Our love for singing and barbershopping got us started,” Rob said. “But we are best friends. and that’s what kept us together for over 20 years. We feel blessed to hang out with our friends and make incredible music together.”

Paul performed with an a cappella pop group for 11 years in addition to performing with Chordiology. “This is 10 times harder, but more rewarding.” he said of barbershop music.

“I was brought up singing barbershop and I was hooked on it immediately: Clifton said. His father was in a barbershop chorus that won the first internalional compelition ever held.

Rob said his homeroom teacher in high school was also the choir director, and “she told me I was going to join the choir.” The first song she taught them was a barbershop song.

Dave, too, was in high school when he was first introduced to barbershop singing, when their choir wanted to play a trick on a student during their performance. The student was going to be in a barber chair and didn’t know that he’d get covered with shaving cream. The teacher said they needed to learn a barbershop song, so they went to a local barbershop quartet’s rehearsal. “I was walking down the hall and I thought it was 100 guys singing, and it was one quartet.” Dave said. He was hooked.

All four men had attended Harmony U. before and couldn’t say enough good things about it. “The best coaches in the Society are here,” Dave said. “These are the experts at barbershop and the best teachers.”

Our first session was for all the quartets. Paut pointed out a gentleman at the session that had been named the best tenor in the history of the Harmony Barbershop Society.

Two quartets stood out in the crowd – one that consisted of two married couples, called “The Honeymooners” and one a quartet of high schoolers. Women barbershoppers are called Sweet Adelines, and since 1992, women have been allowed in at Harmony U. But a quartet of two men and two women is still an unusual sight at the workshop. And the high schoolers? Well, most of the quartet members are probably closer to middle age or older, but the number of young barbershoppers is growing.

This particular session offered tips on self-coaching your group and offered sage advice even if you weren’t part of a barbershop quartet: For every “gentle suggestion” give two positive comments. Another session that week had focused on marketing your quartet, another on contracts.

On our way to the next session, we stopped to visit with tile Reens family from Greensburg, IN. Mom, dad, and three sons ages 13, 11 and 10 were attending Harmony U. for the first time. “We’ve been singing since we were babies,” said Bernard, age 10. The quartet’s next sessions helped me undersland the great value of Harmony U. When quartets compete, they are judged on three criteria – singing, music, and presentation. So three sessions each day are based on those criteria (along with a fourth session on overall performance), and each quartet meets individually with a coach. They meet with the same four coaches all week, so each quartet who attends Harmony U. gains huge amounts of information and insight tailored just for them.

Rik Johnson worked with Chordiology on singing. Employed at IBM in O’Fallon, Mo., he was originally a music major in college and wanted to be a music teacher, so Harmony U. fulfills that dream, he said. Barry Towner, who was the quartet’s overall performance coach, is an executive management consultant from Toronto. The week after this Harmony U., he was heading to Germany to coach at its Harmony U. Incidentally, the coaches do not get paid for Harmony U.; they all volunteer their time.

While my quartet went to lunch, I stopped by the “office” to visit with Sherry Lewis, who works for the Harmony Barbershop Society at its headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. She was serving as the registrar this year for the first time. Afthough it was only Sherry’s third year at Western, Harmony U. has been holding its workshops on Western’s campus every year but one since the mid-1970s. “It’s because of the high level of cooperation of your conference staff,” she told me. “We’ve looked at other places, but we can’t locate a better staff.”

She also told me that they had attendees this year from 10 foreign countries, including New Zealand and Japan, and someone from every state in the United States. “If we’re missing a state, I can’t think what it would be. We even have someone from Alaska.” Some years, there has been as many as 600 barbershoppers, but this year, Ihe number was closer to 500.

I attended two more sessions with my Quartet. Phrases such as “awesome breaths,” “magical transitions,” and “lyrical resolution” liberally peppered the lessons. In the last session, my quartet performed the song they were planning to sing Friday night, when every quartet performs in Potter Hall Theater. The guys had made up their own words to “Nevertheless” that had me laughing through the whole number.

After that session, I visited with Rob, Clifton, Paul and Dave for a little while longer and then I got up to leave. Wait! The quartet wanted to serenade me with “Don’t Be a Baby, Baby” before I left. What more could a girl ask for? It was a perfect ending to a fun day.