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Music educator Amy Harm shares her HU story

Every year during the first week of August, the Barbershop Harmony Society hosts a week long music education event called Harmony University, where singers, directors, teachers, and many other types of vocal enthusiasts immerse themselves completely in harmony education. From world-class courses taught by knowledgeable teachers, round-the-clock singing, unforgettable performances, and lifelong friendships, the experience offered at HU is truly as unique and inspiring one.

Read the story from a recent music educator attendee named Amy Harm from Kansas who graciously shares her HU experience with us below.

    Life at Harmony University By Amy Harms, K-12 Music Teacher, White City, KS I was asked to write an article about my experiences at Harmony University. Sadly, after a week of trying, I still have not been able to put into words what I learned from my experiences there. The article I tried to write felt too impersonal. My experiences at HU were anything but. So now, leaving the bland article behind, I will write my story.

    Back in April, I received an email from the Little Apple Manhattan Chorus informing me of an opportunity for music teachers to attend Harmony University in St. Joseph, Missouri. At Harmony University I would learn about the incredible music called barbershop. Realizing I didn’t know a thing about barbershop, I continued to read. There were numerous quotes from people who have attended. The event looked fun, and as a bonus I could earn two continuing education college hours. So I applied. Looking back, the quotes did not give Harmony University the accreditation it deserves.

    The moment I stepped on the ground at Harmony University I was surrounded by very talented musicians of all ages. Quartets formed in hallways singing “tags”. Each person was so in tune with the music that a group would rehearse until the overtones were heard. Rehearsal of each individual hallway tag didn’t take long. Each musician put forth their best (in the hallway no less) to make the tag ring. Soon, the group would be singing many different and more complex tags—most learned by ear. The stairwell labeled the “temple of tags” was never unoccupied of musicians. I was overwhelmed by the tone quality and highly sensitive ear. I was amazed of the different musical terms and body actions that the musicians communicated to each other and their audience. Their whole body was engaged in creating the best overtone. I don’t know what I expected from Harmony University but I didn’t expect to be so overwhelmed with the quality of sound, intensity of each musician, and the amazing insight into the world of barbershop before any classes actually begin!

    Harmony University offered a variety of classes, and as a teacher I had the freedom to move to different classes that would benefit me the most. Some of my favorite classes were the History of Barbershop taught by David Wright, Vocal Pedagogy taught by Steve Scott, and Back to the Basics taught by Cynthia Hansen. All my classes were taught by highly knowledgeable teachers. Each teacher had an incredible passion for teaching their subject which excited and entertained the students. I cannot tell you how much I learned in these classes, you would be reading an entire book if I did!

    However, I would like to share an example of how highly qualified the instructors are. There are steps to learning. You crawl before you walk, you walk before you run. The first day when David Wright taught the Barbershop History I class (who are students of all different occupations), he asked us to sing a barbershop chord, I said, okay cool. We sang a chord. When David Wright told us to resolve the chord where we think it should go, I thought with growing suspense; “ummm…. Can we do this? Where’s the music theory? How do you know people will understand what to do? This is the first day of class! There are only two music teachers in this class! We’re going to crash and burn!!!” Boy was I wrong. My teacher knew enough background about the students, that he knew we would be successful. He did not set us up to fail like I feared. He understood that you do not have to be a music teacher or a student of music to understand a changing chord. But, he didn’t stop there. After we sang the changing chords, he showed us multiple listening examples of that same chord resolving the same way in the same key. WOW! I fell in love. You can bet that I am borrowing that lesson to show my students.

    Dr. Steve Scott presented a semesters worth of handouts, notes, examples of the voice and how it works in a week. Guess what else; he emailed all the material to me too. And that’s right folks; I will be teaching my students the correct terminology and pronunciation for our vocal body parts. I will be able to discuss what happens when you position your larynx high or low. Even though we were presented with a lot of information, I was not overwhelmed. Steve encouraged our questions, anticipated others, and was able to inform the class by showing or demonstrating the answers. I was amazed at his control and sound of his voice. Not only did he present the information, but he could demonstrate what we were learning with his own voice—we could hear what happens when your larynx is high and low. I don’t mean to brag, but I think I am the smartest music teacher in Kansas now.

    There is more to barbershop music than history, theory, and vocal production. One must also perform well, and that is what I learned from Cynthia Hansen’s class, Back to the Basics. This class gave us ideas for creating chorography, preparing our singers for chorography, learning the chorography, and practicing techniques for that big performance night. Cindy was incredibly positive with her class motto of, “Set it for Success”. Every individual can be successful, and it is up to the directors and the teachers to help each person to become successful. Every individual has something to offer to the chorus. Our class became the chorus and we were able to see different ideas come to life. We were able to see how everyone can be successful. Cindy also brought in the barbershop quartet, “Fred the Dog”. We watched a great performance, and with Cindy and the class, we turned it into a great performance. We saw how important staging is for a performance to be successful.

    In all of these classes I was reunited with the power of music. The power of music brings people together. In everyday life, even if we (people who attended Harmony University) lived in the same city, we would not likely meet. We were all of different occupations and hobbies. But, through the love of music, we were able to meet each other and learn from each other. In the Physics of Sound class, we had a math teacher, an electrical engineer, a professional opera singing, college students, and a rocket scientist. I believe almost every state was represented. There were also people from different countries including Canada, Austria, Australia, Great Britain, and probably many others. When Professor Herald Hill, in “The Music Man”, turns the squabbling school board members into a quartet, he tells their wives, “Ladies, you will never see any of those men without the other three.” He is correct. The music brought the quartet together, and at Harmony University, we were all a part of one quartet. Beyond the classes, Harmony University offered a variety of opportunities to perform with the Honors Chorus, directed by Joe Cerutti, the Next Generation Chorus directed by Mike O’Neill and Adam Scott, and the Directors Chorus directed by Kirk Young. Even though I did not participate in any of these choruses I was able to watch them live on Saturday night. Then I watched them again on the broadcast over the internet! For me, I was able to participate and perform with the Green Team, one of the first timers groups. We performed for Thursday’s barbeque. I performed again with the first-timer (to HU) teachers were asked to sing “Strange Music”, a beautiful arrangement written by the late Fred King. We performed during the parade of quartets held Friday night. Let me just say, we should live, laugh, and SING!

    Being a greenhorn to barbershop, I didn’t know who Mr. King was, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that many loved and adored this man—including Mike Rowe (I didn’t meet Mike Rowe, but I did see podcast #5, where “Mike Rowe remembers Fred King”.). I also didn’t realize when I was sitting in the presence of greatness. I can’t tell you how many times I talked with gold medalists winners without realizing who they were. After learning how naive I was, I did some research and felt incredibly blessed when Darin Drown (Director of Sound of the Rockies, and Quartet member of Storm Front) sat down and sang right next to me during one of the general morning sessions. His character, voice, and overall good attitude were so wonderful to witness first hand. I really did feel like the luckiest person there.

    The feeling of being lucky lasted all week. I had the chance to observe and learn from the best coaches, choruses and quartets barbershop has to offer. Sound of the Rockies, the 2010 International Barbershop Chorus Champions practiced and were coached by legendary contest judges every day. I cannot tell you how inspired and honored I felt to be able to listen and learn from the masters at work. It was humbling to see how much I could still add into my teaching, while very gratifying to see some of the techniques I use were also used. One morning, I remarked to a gentleman sitting next to me that I wanted to sit right in front of the conductor, just wishing to be in the “sweet spot”. He asked, “You want to, but would you?” and I said, “Of course, who wouldn’t want to be there, surrounded by the best?” He then responded, “Well, I’m Marty, and I am coaching them next. I need you to do just that.” I was a little shocked, and didn’t think he was serious. He was! So, for approximately 45 minutes, 80 men sang a love song to just me. I was sitting in the sweetest spot. The voices blending together, the overtones ringing over my head, the compassion in the tone, the lyrics itself bringing tears to my eyes, the emotion of yearning, longing, loving faces singing only to me…. It didn’t take long for tears to form. I could not look at some of the singers directly because of how close I felt to them. The emotional connection they shared with me was so intense, that if I were to look at them, I would cry with longing of wanting to be loved like the song implied. It was most difficult to control my feminine sensibilities and not run out of the room like a crying, babbling baby. Would I do it again? YES! Words cannot describe the feeling of being reborn into music. My perspective of life changed that morning.

    To the women fearing of attending an all male organization, fear not. Even as I walked to the first general session, I realize that I am not only surrounded by great musicians but also people of good moral character. I knew I would be a minority there (being female), but I did not expect to be treated as a lady by everyone. Throughout the week, the only doors I had to open were the bathroom doors. Gentlemen asked to take my breakfast, lunch, and dinner trays. They offered to bring refreshments. I was never allowed to go walking by myself—even to class; it is too dangerous they would say. I never felt endangered, in fact, I felt as if I were a treasure to be protected. So ladies, fear not, and enjoy a little attention.

    At Harmony University, I learned not only about the history, theory, vocal production, and performing, but I also learned what music does for the spirit. After the Sound of the Rockies rehearsal, members would give me hugs and say thank you for my participation for that morning. Some would start singing, “Once in Love with Amy” when they saw me near. Others teased that I had become the Chorus’s mascot when I continued to watch and learn from their practices. But, it wasn’t just the Sound of the Rockies that made me feel special. It was everyone. People singing tags in the hallway asking you to join, or people wanting to know where you are from and how long you have been singing barbershop, people working together in a very positive atmosphere to create music is enough to lift any spirit. Watching practices, and the community formed at HU, I learned far more than just Barbershop. I learned about how people should treat and respect each other. I learned about how people from all parts of the world can live in peace through music. I learned that a book is not judged by its cover, but by what’s inside. I learned that music can change a person’s life again and again.

    Top 10 things I learned about Barbershop:
    1. The People – instructors, students, world class barber shoppers
    2. Variety of classes and opportunities
    3. Knowledge of Vocal Anatomy and Health
    4. Knowledge of how to Produce good vocal sound
    5. Knowledge of the un-tempered and tempered tuning scales
    6. Ringing Chords
    7. History coming to life
    8. The Physics of Sound
    9. The reminders and prime examples of the use of the Circle of 5ths and 7th chords
    10. Improvisation of tempo and embellishments