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Britonet: Barbershop groups get a rush of new blood

From The Independent, Sunday, 23 May 2010

With their slick suits, coiffed hair and tight vocal harmonies, Monkey Magic could be virtually any aspiring boy band. Only the four young men’s pitch-perfect singing gives away that they are actually barbershop singers and among the growing number embracing the unfashionable genre.

Traditionally the preserve of middle-aged men in stripy waistcoats and straw boaters, the British Association of Barbershop Singers (Babs) has seen youth membership double in the past six months; a surge that some attribute to a wider rise in the popularity of singing among boys and young men. This week, 2,500 people will head to Harrogate to take part in the annual convention of British barbershop singers.

“One thing driving the increase in young people attending is the availability of barbershop videos on YouTube. We get lots of people who have seen clips and want to get involved,” said Alan Goldsmith, 60, chairman of Babs. “A lot of people think that young people only like pop songs, but that is not true.”

While the National Barbershop Youth Chorus sings barbershop versions of modern songs, when entering competitions members are restricted to performing a list of traditional songs.

The popularity of TV shows such as The Choir – in which choirmaster Gareth Malone taught choral singing to those who have never sung before – and the hit series Glee are also thought to have encouraged non-singers to take part. Total membership of Babs has risen by 20 per cent in the past 15 months to more than 2,200, while nationwide “Learn to Sing” barbershop courses were heavily oversubscribed, with some choruses having waiting lists of 100.

Some experts believe that it may be the single-sex nature of barbershop quartets that appeals to shy youngsters. “The thing which embarrasses them is girls,” said Martin Ashley, professor of education at Edgehill University, who has published extensive research into boys and singing. “Between the ages of 11 and 14, girls put boys off singing by the million. Then by the age squeaky, the singing then becomes a good way to impress girls.”

More than £40m of government funding has been spent encouraging young people to sing during the past three years, via the national “Sing Up” programme in schools, with the aim of increasing children’s confidence and communication skills through song. Barbershop singing also offers boys an alternative to singing in church choirs, where the high-pitched songs put off some youngsters.

Professor Ashley said: “The boys in barbershop quartets are often popular types, who play football as well. Barbershop singing isn’t uncool. Whereas when we asked secondary school boys what they thought of boys singing high-pitched songs, they unanimously thought that they shouldn’t be singing like that.”

Alan Hughes, 24, a member of the quartet Monkey Magic, started barbershop singing when he was 10. “When I was at school people thought it was a bit weird, so I didn’t tell many people, but by the time I got to university people just thought it was unique. A lot of my friends now are singers too,” he said. “We practise every weekend at one of our houses, most of the time we do a gig on Saturday nights. It can be quite testing on a relationship; three of the four of us have girlfriends who are barbershop singers too, so they understand.”

While barbershop quartets may not be jostling Lily Allen for position in the Top 40, record companies are on the lookout for new barbershop acts. Young a cappella group Voces8 signed a recording deal with Signum Classics 18 months ago, and their barbershop-inspired album of Bond film themes enjoyed good sales. Many quartets regularly perform in small venues and private parties.

“It is mostly weddings and anniversary parties. It doesn’t make us a profit but it covers our expenses and we’ve got to travel all over the world, which is a perk. We went on Britain’s Got Talent but went out in the first round. I don’t think they want people with actual talent,” Mr Hughes said.