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An “Outsider’s” Look at Harmony University

Originally posted in the Kansas City Choral

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” – William Shakespeare

“No man is an island.” – John Donne

“Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow” – Swedish Proverb

The longer I direct choirs, and the longer I live, the more convinced I am of the fact that it’s all about relationships. This is not a new concept, but I guess I’m a slow learner. An introvert by nature, I’ve never found it easy to build relationships, but I’ve grown to understand that they are the key to success in just about every area of life. When we take steps to make our choirs communities and families, and when through our leadership our choirs become safe havens, we are meeting one aspect of the human soul’s greatest need – the need for community.

Most of us have experienced a new beginning recently. Whether we direct choirs in schools, community groups, or houses of worship, the end of summer and beginning of fall means a fresh start, and new faces in our choirs. Have you thought about how to build community and family in your choirs this year? Of course, I feel like I’m “preaching to the choir” (yes, that pun was intended!) because I know many of you are better at this and more intentional about it than I am, but I still feel compelled to remind us all of how important this aspect of our job is. As choir directors, each of us has the potential to be a minister in the sense that we care for people. Through music, and through community, we have the tools to enrich our singers’ lives and to teach them and ourselves how to be better people.

I’d like to share a little about a wonderful community I recently had the opportunity to join. Although I sang in a barbershop quartet in high school, and for a short time again when I was a grad student, I’ve never been an avid “barbershopper,” but this summer, thanks to a generous scholarship from the Capital City Chorus in Topeka, I got the chance to attend an amazing week of singing and fellowshipping at Harmony University, sponsored by the Barbershop Harmony Society. It happens in St. Joseph, Missouri each summer, and I highly recommend it. Want to know why? Read on.

This incredible week was full of pleasant surprises. The first surprise had to do with vocal technique. The old stereotypical paint-peeling, vein-popping barbershop vocal production was nowhere to be found. I took a class called Advanced Vocal Technique with Darin Drown, the baritone of the 2010 International Championship quartet, Storm Front. Darin, a high school choral director in the Denver, Colorado area, taught nothing more or less than classic bel canto technique in his class, and the diehard barbershoppers loved it. I heard beautiful and healthy singing all week from some extremely talented and well-trained singers. The second surprise was that the average attendee at this conference had an astonishing grasp of ear training and functional music theory. I’d always known that barbershop singing was a completely a cappella art, but seeing the fruit of it still surprised me. These guys (and girls – more about that later) would stand around in clusters and teach each other new tags in a minute or two. For the uninitiated, a tag is the last few bars of a barbershop song. To teach a tag to a quartet, one singer will quickly sing each part a few times to each of the other singers, and then they’ll sing it together, striving for that coveted barbershop ring that happens when the chords are precisely in tune. What amazed me in this process was how quickly the teachers and singers could communicate and learn these short pieces, usually with no printed music in front of them. It was not unusual to see someone singing their own part while simultaneously using hand signs, solfège, or numbers to remind one or two of the other singers how their parts went. Also, many of these singers are always aware of which part of the chord they are singing at any given time. This enabled them to sing their note slightly higher or lower than equal temperament when necessary in order to make the chords ring absolutely true. All of this sometimes took place in a crowded cafeteria with as many as six or seven different groups singing different tags in different keys at the same time, so it took a lot of concentration!

Another surprise was how many women attended Harmony U. The Barbershop Harmony Society is an organization of men’s choruses, but perhaps 15% of the attendees were women, many of them directors of men’s barbershop choruses. When I told one of them that I was hoping to encourage the formation of some quartets among the guys in my college choirs, she said, “Make sure you tell the girls they can sing barbershop, too. If they discover it later in life, they’ll be mad at you if you didn’t let them get involved earlier!”

The Barbershop Harmony Society is very attentive to the needs of vocal music educators. Want some help starting a quartet or chorus among your singers? Give their home office a call. They’ve got staff members ready to help by supplying music and other resources (many of them free!), and they can put you in touch with barbershoppers in your area who are willing to come to your school and help jump start your program.

I began this article talking about community, and my experience at Harmony University was a beautiful illustration of its importance. I came to Harmony U as a stranger – I didn’t know a single person there. When I left I had new friends from all over the United States, as well as from Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia. Many of these people and I had very little in common – we came from different cultures, educational backgrounds, and career fields, but singing together brought us together. Well, the free ice cream 24 hours a day didn’t hurt, either.