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.