By Steve Jordon
(Originally posted at Omaha.com)
About 80 men stand on risers, take a breath together and then sing:
“It’s been so grand with you, my friend, but soon, now, our time will end…”
It’s the opening number for the Pathfinder Chorus, and the singers’ enthusiasm wins your heart as you watch them practice, combining “Auld Lang Syne” and “South Rampart Street Parade,” and later while they croon “Heart of My Heart” during an informal after-rehearsal session.
This month, 78 members of the group traveled to Mason City, Iowa, and won the hearts of judges at a five-state regional contest. It was the biggest event for the Pathfinders since the singing group began in 1972, and apparently the first such victory by a Nebraska group in more than 50 years.
How about singing “Jeepers Creepers,” or “What’ll I Do,” or “I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo”? “I Will Never Pass This Way Again,” “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover,” “That’s an Irish Lullaby,” “Blue Velvet”…
Last summer, the chorus competed as a “wild card” at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s international festival in Philadelphia. Next July 3 through 10, thanks to the Pathfinders’ recent win, it will be a full qualifier when the society meets in Kansas City, Mo.
Although the chorus is based in Fremont, Neb., most of the members are from out of town, driving in from the Omaha area, Lincoln, Columbus, Beatrice, Grand Island, Sioux City, Iowa, and towns in between.
They’re looking for new members, too, said director Pete Stibor, an office supplies sales and marketing manager by day and a leader of men by night.
“We want to grow in numbers, but we want to grow musically as well,” said Stibor, whose personal goals include directing the group at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. He prefers the term a cappella, which means singing without accompaniment and is, literally, Italian for “in the style of a chapel.”
Members range in age from 11 to 85. There’s an audition, and you have to be able to sing in tune. But once in, you’re a part of the group, even if your vocal cords grow weary over time. Members who recruit newcomers observe a half-serious rule: Anyone you bring in has to be younger, a better singer and better-looking.
… “God Bless the USA,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Shenandoah,” “Little Darlin’,” “Peg o’ My Heart,” “Hey, Look Me Over,” “Danny Boy,” “The Music of the Night,” “Deep Purple” …
While the rehearsal focused closely on the sound, the visual aspect was fascinating, too — the expressions of these six dozen men. They’re not just singing, they’re acting: the soulful lover pining for his girl, the cheerful greeter welcoming you to an evening of entertainment, even the joyful celebrant dancing a Western-style jig.
It’s not simple singing — not like humming in the shower to yourself, not like karaoke with a recorded backup band.
Words in these tunes can flip past quickly, and in a chorus this size, every singer must enunciate every syllable or the whole thing comes out like mush. Songs change keys in midstream. Because it’s a cappella, no instruments hint at the next note or keep singers on pitch.
The harmonies can be complex and subtle — a half-pitch off can ruin a classic chord and disrupt the mood. But sung accurately, the harmonies are what make barbershop singing engaging, nostalgic and fun.
If a quartet can produce a full, exciting sound, think of the musical picture that four-times-20 singers can paint.
It’s all memorized, down to the hand-clapping, head-turning and winks and nods that bring selections to life.
… “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?” “Mr. Touchdown USA,” “Ave Maria,” “After the Lovin’,” “For Me and My Gal,” “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose,” “Let’s Get Away From It All” …
After the rehearsal, 30 or 40 of the men adjourn to Irv’s in downtown Fremont, where tables are lined up in advance, and begin to sing, sometimes soft and sweet, sometimes raucous, sometimes sentimental, sometimes just plain funny.
As the night deepens, they drift away a few at a time. Some quartets assemble on the sidewalk, singing tunes everyone knows. Then they head home to their families, with another night of good memories and a sense that they’ve learned something.
… “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “Dear Hearts and Gentle People,” “Let’s Get Away From It All,” “When I Fall In Love,” “I’m Confessin’ ” “Old Cape Cod” …
The music is fun, and that attracts the men. But the longer-lasting bond, the thing that brings them every Monday evening to First Presbyterian Church, that makes them call up their Internet website or turn on a CD to learn the words and music before rehearsals, is the man-to-man connection.
“It’s my adult fraternity,” said Roger Millnitz of Lincoln.
In a time when men can be isolated from each other by computers, political parties, religions, family tangles, age, social categories and economic disparity, they can join together close for this. Your personality comes through. You do your part, support the fellow in front, beside and behind you. You accomplish something together with a group of men.
Not that there’s anything wrong with women, of course. The world’s great vocal music calls for men and women to sing together.
But a male chorus? Well, there’s something special about listening to one, and there’s something special about singing in one, too.
Something special about the Pathfinders.
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