This event was conducted by the Mid-Atlantic district of the Barbershop Harmony Society. There were classes on various topics that were conducted by experts in the field; there was individual coaching if one desired; the entertainment in the evening was provided by the choruses and quartets that were being coached, and from award winning groups, and finally from an awesome youth ensemble; and finally there were various opportunities to sing. It turned out to be an awesome experience.
I was definitely putting myself outside my usual comfort zone with this experience, and for many reasons.
The event took place is a college campus in northern Maryland. I stayed in a dorm room and ate my meals in a cafeteria, sharing a suite and a common bathroom with folks that I did not know. (Also pay attention to the paragraph below in this context.) It has been several years since I did something like that.
The barbershop scene is not very diverse. A significant number of the people attending the event were white and old. Even the people who were not old were mostly white. Being an introvert, I had to make an extra effort to engage with folks. Fortunately, they all turned out to be nice people, even if many of them were unlikely to share my interests and viewpoints. Having said all of that, the young kids who were there for the youth camp seemed to be a more diverse lot. Perhaps there is hope!
With no background in music, I did not know what I was getting myself into. I ended up learning a lot about performing for an audience in general, and barbershop in particular. I learnt that the unique craft of barbershop music is based on a singing technique that encompasses four parts that come together to emphasize different harmonics of a fundamental frequency in order to create “barbershop chords” that have a unique and pleasing sound. (And it is not always the melody that constitutes the fundamental frequency.) I also learnt that pianos are tuned in a way that is called “equal temperament”, which allows music to be played in various keys, but which essentially makes them out of tune – in that they do not play the harmonics of a note properly. In order to play harmonics properly the piano has to be of “just intonation”, but then you lose the flexibility of the musical instrument, be it a piano or a guitar. You cannot create barbershop harmonics with today’s piano because the notes are off. Wow!
I stumbled into barbershop music several years ago by chance. It is only now that I am gaining a proper appreciation for the technical aspects of the craft that I have taken up. I understand why it is most important in barbershop for the vowel sounds created by the four different parts to match perfectly to create the perfect sounds. I understand why it is important for the four different parts in barbershop to be sung at different volume levels corresponding to their place in the chord being created (something that can even change from note to note) to create a good sound. This is more difficult than I originally thought. But it is also awesome to be always learning!
I will end with a video that was shown at one of the classes illustrating what a good performance may look like. This was a song sung in competition. (For anybody interested, the order in which the quartet is on stage is – tenor, lead, bass, baritone.)
Incidentally, the group had points taken off for the break in the performance.
We had a couple of new guests at our chorus practice last Sunday. One of them was an older gentleman who said he had been a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society for fifty years! He had maintained his membership while not being active in recent years. When he mentioned the name of the quartet he had been singing in in the seventies and eighties, Friends of Yesterday, our director noted that they used to be one of his favorite groups. They had even won a few championships in their heydays. After practice that evening he proceeded to to look for their old performances on the Internet. He sent us this link. The song being sung is an old barbershop classic from The Music Man, and it was the same song I sang in a quartet that night.
Listen carefully to the four parts coming together to create chords that ring. Even the simplest of songs can sound amazing when sung properly in the barbershop style.
The gentleman’s name is Richard Bentz.
Barbershop is one of two unique American styles of music, but unlike its more famous cousin, Jazz, this style had been dying for the last few decades. The number of people who still sing barbershop is small, and when you go to conventions you can see that most of the population is aging. But there has been a move more recently to try to attract new young blood to the craft, and towards that goal there have been more contemporary songs that have been arranged for barbershop. But the core rules that govern the definition and use of the barbershop style, especially in competitions, has progressed more slowly. Songs that tend to be sung at barbershop conventions for competition tend to be from past decades, and you have to be really careful that you are following the barbershop rules if you are going to try to arrange a more contemporary song for competition. One of the competitors at a recent event sang the following song in this regard.
As our chorus, Harmony Express, prepared for its Singing Valentines program for 2014, it became quite clear that there was a shortage of volunteers to fill in all of the four parts for the quartets needed for both the morning and late evening sessions. Although my confidence in delivering the lead notes in a quartet as a romantic offering from one person to his significant other was quite limited, I had to do something. I had not been able to support the chorus in past years for the Valentine’s day happenings. I needed to go out of my comfort zone to help the chorus this time, especially since I had time on my hands. So I signed up!
I was assigned to sing with two different quartets, one in the morning and the other in the evening. The morning crew consisted of two people who were accomplished singers, and two others of us who did not quite match up to the first two. Both of us less accomplished singers had signed up to help the chorus even though we were not used to singing in quartets. You knew that things were not going well when we practiced for the first time, when right away I began to get all kinds of instructions on how to improve my singing. This did not make for a good start. A few days earlier the quality of my singing had led our chorus director to give me some directions for changing the mechanics of my singing process, and now I was hearing many more suggestions to add to the mix, all of which were being provided with the best of intentions. But I was trying to figure out four or five different new things at the same time, and this made things difficult. There were instructions that did not make any sense to an engineer. Throw your voice forward to produce the brightness required for barbershop singing (rather than produce the deep sounds from your throat like an opera singer). Keep your sound tall. Keep the soft palate closed (easier said than done!). Let the sound come out of the top of your head. And then there were these other directions – sing louder, sing like a drunken person, sing as if you had a marshmallow or a golf ball stuck in your mouth, remove the tension in your voice, relax your throat muscles, get under that last note in the song, sit on the note, get on top of the note. Oh my goodness! After singing in the chorus for so many years, the sound of my singing voice was in the process of being deconstructed and reconstructed in a big way yet again.
Well, one of the songs that we sang during the first practice session went off OK, but it turned out that I had been singing the last note of the second song slightly sharper than it needed to be for a very long time. This discovery brought the whole practice session to a complete halt. The good singers could not continue forward with the current quality of singing from the lead. So I spent the whole week focusing on the song that was giving me difficultly. I made recordings of my singing on the computer, with and without accompaniment from the learning track. Sure enough, I had been singing the last note incorrectly for years. But nobody had corrected me during all that time! It was going to be difficult to undo something I had been doing for such a long time. The next week I went back to practice thinking that my problem had been addressed, but I got grief immediately once again. Another week of painful repetitions of the last part of the song followed at home with the learning tracks and a pitch pipe in hand. Every time I thought I had it, the pitch on that last note of the song would drift upwards subtly. Most people would not have made a big deal of it, but I could not get away with it with the folks I was singing with. It was maddening. Now that I was thinking about it so much, I also began to feel that the pitch on that last note had to be exact. After all, engineers tend to be anal retentive, and like things to be perfect. I analyzed my problem systematically as engineers are wont to do, and I did it in so many different ways in excruciatingly painful detail. I compared each note I was singing at the tail end of the song to the notes in the learning media, and I also compared these notes to the notes that came out of the pitch pipe. Not that it was going to help me, but I even looked up the difference in frequencies between the neighboring notes. It did not help that I had never learned to read music. My singing of the whole song (not just the end of it) was now beginning to fall apart because I was thinking too much about it. But I think the analysis did finally work in the end. I realized that the problem was not just in the last note, but in the previous note as well. Since I was sharp on the penultimate note (a fact that nobody had pointed out), I was also sharp on the last note. I needed to focus on the entire sequence of notes. Luckily I got to the root of the problem with sufficient time to spare. After a sufficient amount of practice I was able to get back to trying to relax and singing the complete song freely once again without tensing up too much.
The weekend before Valentine’s day we sang the songs in front of our director so that he could check the quality of the songs and also offer some constructive criticism. While the experts may have been thinking about the exact pitches for the notes, the director just focused on how comfortable I was singing the songs. Of course, the song that I had spent hours practicing was the one for which I was a little more tense and had the most issues with delivery. We decided that that song would be the last option during our gigs.
The Friday of Valentine’s day comes up just as the area is recovering from a massive snow storm. It became quite clear the previous evening that we would have no orders for Friday morning. That meant that I would not have to sing with the folks who tended to be most critical of my singing. For a little while it also seemed like there would be no customers for the evening, and that I would get off scott free from the whole gig. But that situation changed during the day. I was going out with a quartet to Columbia, MD, not very close by, to deliver two Singing Valentines programs. Not only that, we would be delivering the most expensive package that we had, which meant singing all three songs that we had practiced, along with a card, a box of chocolates and a dozen roses. I could not get away from the song that I had been critiqued about, and I would have to sing it on two occasions. Now, the quartet for the evening was different from the one I had spent a long time practicing with. It did not include the people who had been most concerned about my singing, but it did include a person who I had never sung with before (because he had not been coming to practices). This was going to be quite the experience! But you know what, I was not stressed out about any of this. I resolved to just relax and do whatever I could do, with whatever musical quality I could conjure up. I was not even going to worry about the problematic song. Que sera sera.
We landed up at the first home where we were supposed to sing after the sun had set. It was turning cold and the water from the melting ice had begun to refreeze up on the roads. The first thing we did when we got out of our cars was to warm up by singing together in the cold beside the car. This warm-up was especially important since we were singing together for the first time. We sang through each of the songs once. It did not sound too bad. We carefully proceeded into the home sliding over the ice. I think the lady to whom we were delivering the songs was expecting us. She sat on the sofa waiting for us to start while her husband stood in the background. The boy who had been sitting in the room decided that he wanted none of this and vanished to his room. The dog stayed back.
I sang my heart out to her. I was trying to channel as much emotion as I could into the song, but she was sitting there looking somewhat expressionless, even looking away from me. I thought that the beginnings of the songs were ragged in timing and pitch, but we sang pretty decently (not great) after the shaky start. We got to the end of the songs and I could not make out how successful we had been from looking at her face, but the dog was wagging its tail. The lady thanked us individually for coming and then we departed. I have to say that I was not nervous while singing, and I tried to focus on delivering the emotion of the song rather than the exact singing technique and notes.
The lady at the second house did not know that we were coming, but she knew that her husband was up to something because he had not wanted to leave the home earlier for dinner. We started singing the first song, and she immediately reached out for her husband’s hand on the seat behind her. She was appreciating the words in the song. She was definitely paying attention. She was moved! We went on to the second and third songs and she was really feeling it and getting a little emotional. At the end she came up and hugged each one of us. It looked like we had made a successful delivery. But I did think that our singing was still only of similar quality to that for our first stop. It was not top notch. And we did get a generous tip this time…
So we drove back home and I was feeling quite satisfied about the way things turned out. I knew that I had done what I could for the chapter within my limitations. I was done. Or so I thought.
A couple of days after Valentine’s day, our program coordinator sent out a request for singers to deliver a Singing Valentine that we had not been able to deliver on Friday. The school at which the delivery was supposed to take place had been closed that day on account of the weather. The husband would like the the Singing Valentine to be delivered even if it was late. Being the helpful soul that I was, I said that I was available. As luck would have it, I was asked to be the lead in yet another quartet on Wednesday. This time all the other parts of the quartet, not just two, were being sung by good singers. I was the odd man out. But the situation was slightly different. Two of the new singers had been singing in quartets for years and had the experience to deal with folks like me who were not that good. The third person in the quartet happened to be one of the guys who had been pointing out my mistakes at the quartet practices earlier on. But no worries!
I got to the location where we had decided to meet for a warm-up session prior to the drive to the school to deliver the Valentines. Let’s sing, they said! The pitch pipe was blown. I delivered my first note. You are flat, Kuriacose – came the somewhat pointed statement from the bass who was staring at me, not looking too happy. I stared back at him silently, thinking to myself that this was an honest criticism, that I should not react negatively, and that I should endeavor to do better with the next start. But the others were not as rough. Hey man, give him a break, he just came out the cold – said the tenor. If he is flat, then we also need to sing flat – said the baritone. The fact of the matter is that the tenor, bass and baritone are expected to follow the lead wherever he takes them, even if it is off-tune. I took off my jacket and prepared myself for a long warm up session. They were a little gentler with me after that. The singing improved with each song that we sang. They would have wanted me to sing louder, but understood that I was more comfortable at a lower volume level, and that they would need to adjust. They gave suggestions on how to get beyond just singing the right notes in order to deliver a performance. A light level of conducting was suggested from one of the experienced singers in order to make this an effective performance. We were singing quite well as a quartet as we headed off to the school in the tenor’s vehicle.
The Frost School in Rockville, MD, is a school for children with special needs. After we signed in at the front desk with the receptionist, we waited to be escorted to a room when we would deliver the Singing Valentines. The person who took us to the room was the one we were going to be singing to. What I did not know was that she was going to have the school kids in the room while we were singing. As we went down the corridor, she let the teachers know that we were there, and kids streamed into the performance room from all directions. If there were a time I should have started becoming nervous, this was it! I was singing to a room full of kids with special needs. But things were cool. Things were laid back. After the introductions and the delivery of the flowers, cards and chocolates, the pitch pipe was blown. Our experienced tenor knew enough to hum my first note so that I would have a good start. And then we were off to the races. We sang quite well I was told. I thought that we did create some nice chords that rang, which is an indication of how well the different parts were harmonizing together. In any case, after we sang our third and supposedly last song, there was a request for an encore. There was an impromptu performance of one of the songs from the Barbershop polecat book without any prior practice. This time even I could make out that we had nailed it. The song sounded incredibly gorgeous, and on the last note I could feel the perfect harmony. It was an awesome blend. There was hushed silence from the folks in the room as the song ended. Home run!
We departed in good spirits, and I thanked the rest of the gang for supporting me. They declared that they were willing to sing in this quartet in the future at any time! (I might hold them to that one!) As for me, I was happy with the way things turned out. I will be signing up to sing next year.