Barbershop Goes to School: The Quinton Township School Music/Choral Program

By Marty Steiner

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The Wildcat Harmonizers are all smiles after their show-stopping, award winning performances at the Youth Barbershop Festival in Reno, Nevada last January.

Barbershop singing conjures up images of four mature males, perhaps even senior to ancient, with straw hats in hand singing their hearts out, followed by a cold brew after leaving the stage. But in Quinton, New Jersey, groups of four or more students from a pre-K to eighth grade township school are wowing audiences, as well as some of these older, more seasoned barbershop groups. They represent the next generation of barbershop.

What first brought Choral Director’s attention to the Quinton Township School music program is the school’s barbershop harmony-based offerings. To understand this unusual emphasis, we only have to look at John Wernega, the music director, and his musical background.

Like so many who find themselves involved in music education, John’s story begins early with piano lessons at the age of six. This underlying fact very likely made him aware of the importance of these early years in music education. “I attribute much of what I know about reading music and music theory to these early lessons” he told Choral Director. This would lead to a voice major and music education bachelors’ degree in 1993 at what is now Rowan University.

Wernega became the half-time music director at Quinton right after graduation 26 years ago. This was a restart of that school’s music program which had been completely cancelled just a year earlier. “I accepted the position because I would have the kids for nine consecutive years. I could teach them everything about music…reading music, history, performing and especially harmony!”

“The Barbershop Harmony Society is immensely proud to have John Wernega as one of our long-time members. His lifelong passion for making and sharing music overflows into his teaching. This is the passion of the Barbershop Harmony, of Everyone in Harmony, a place where everyone from any background can enjoy singing for a lifetime. John is one of just a handful of educators in North America who introduces barbershop harmony to students as early as elementary school. Watch his elementary chorus, the Wildcat Chord Ringers, steal the show with their comical outfits and close harmony at the 2019 Midwinter Convention! Under his guidance, young musicians have earned acclaim from huge audiences, and some have even gone on to win championship accolades.”

Holly J. Kellar
Chief Marketing Office
Barbershop Harmony Society

He began his time at Quinton in 1994 establishing both a junior and senior choir. These were essentially typical elementary and middle school vocal groups. In 1997 they evolved into today’s chorale and junior select choir. Wernega was awarded his first Quinton Township School Teacher of the Year award as well as the state (New Jersey) Governor’s Teacher Award that same year. He worked at and earned his masters’ degree from Westminster Choir College of Rider University in 2011. This had involved numerous six- week summer sessions over the years to accomplish. He currently teaches both choral and instrumental music at Quinton and is again Teacher of the year in 2018-19.

The Quinton groups participate in barbershop adjudication events. Plaques from the 2017 judging are evidence of their accomplishment.

It is notable that the Quinton Township School may well represent a large segment of our nation’s public schools in terms of student body size, family background, school staff size, and the community resources available. With a Quinton township population of less than 2700 and a total school enrollment of only 330 students in the town’s combined elementary and middle school, the faculty of less than 30 must be highly self-reliant and capable. This is not an affluent community and very few families play or sing music. A consolidated high school in nearby Salem City serves the higher grades.

Quinton Township School is one of only a handful of middle schools offering a barbershop harmony program. It may be the only elementary school with barbershop ensembles and more typical barbershop quartets! These groups include the award-winning Wildcat Harmonizers, Elementary Mix, Wildcat Chord Ringers, and Nothing but Treble. This barbershop program is not only popular with the student body but also to the community and audiences wherever they perform across the country. It may overshadow the reality that more traditional music education does still continue at the school.

A group of eight boys, third to eighth grade, comprise the Wildcat Harmonizers. Last January the Harmonizers performed one of their choreographed routines at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s (BHS) Mid-Winter Convention’s Youth Barbershop Festival in Reno, Nevada. This festival is for groups of students 25 years of age or younger. The Harmonizers were the youngest and smallest group invited to perform at this “invitation only” event. They stole the show, winning the “Audience Favorite” award and then were invited to do two additional, special performances! All of the Harmonizers intricately choreographed routines are created by John Wernega, their teacher, music arranger, and choreographer.

Formed in early 2017, the Quinton Elementary Mix was the youngest group, by far, to ever perform at the International Barbershop Convention. The convention, in Las Vegas, was in July, only five months after the group began. Their audience numbered in the thousands of Barbershop fans! The group’s current lead singer is a second grader, third grader as baritone, another third grader as tenor, and an eighth grader as bass.

The Wildcat Chord Ringers, formed in 2017, performed at the 2019 Mid-Winter Convention of the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) in Nashville, catching Choral Director’s attention. They are a treble range-only form of barbershop. Composed of nine students, they were the youngest group to perform at a Grand Ole Opry Intergenerational Showcase event sponsored by the BHS. Featuring several wardrobe changes and full theatrics, the group won the special Presenters Award. 

Nothing But Treble was the first all-girls group. Initially there were not enough girls that had reached a performance level to form a stand-alone group. The choir and chorale had provided them with their only opportunity. Now Nothing but Treble forms the girl’s backbone of the chorale and Head Start in Harmony.

You can feel the harmony as the Elementary Mix perform.

Quintastic is the newest group of John Wernaga’s studio of harmony groups from the Quinton Township School. It demonstrates the vitality of Wernega’a program in that these students, all girls, came to him and asked for this group to be formed. Only in existence for a few months, responses to their online videos include, “I’ll show this to my twin fifth grade daughters to share my love of barbershop with them” and “the future of barbershop is in safe hands!” The group is composed of three eighth graders and a sixth grader.

The chorale is the most advanced level choir at the Quinton Township School. With much of their repertoire based on the barbershop four-part a cappella harmony, they perform in a variety of languages. These include Ukrainian and other languages more common to the body of work performed such as Latin, French, German, and Italian. In addition to the traditional four-part harmony, this group also sometimes includes five- and eight-part harmony arrangements. Entry level to the chorale requires a student’s pitch matching capability and may include students from the fourth grade and above.

“Music for All” almost sounds too political, but that is exactly what the Head Start in Harmony program is all about. Not content to limit the four-part harmony experience to just the Quinton school students, Wernega ambitiously created this program and event to include all area elementary students in a one-day barbershop festival. It would be a sort of regional four-part harmony elementary chorus. The only requirement to participate was to be able to sing in tune and memorize their part in three songs. These included two boys chorus, two girls chorus and one combined chorus songs. Sheet music was distributed in November by email along with soundtracks. The incentive to participate was free pizza and festival T-shirts, which also became part of the chorus uniforms. The Wildcat Chord Ringers form the backbone of the boys chorus and the Nothing but Treble girls anchor the girls.

The Wildcat Harmonizers take a break in Lexington, KY after performing at a barbershop event in 2016.

Festival day in February included eight simultaneous sectional rehearsals, combined rehearsals, a pizza lunch, and more rehearsals culminating with an afternoon public concert. Guest adult barbershop groups assisted with the rehearsals and also performed in addition to the elementary Festival Chorus. Fifty-one elementary students sang that day. The 2020 festival is already scheduled.

Where did all this barbershop at Quinton begin? This was a convergence of Wernega’s background and an unusual opportunity. Wernega’s barbershop involvement and participation overlap his college days. He had joined a barbershop singing group in 1990. That group was affiliated with a BHS Chapter. Schedule conflicts caused him to later drop out, but not until he had already been at Quinton and saw the music education possibilities that barbershop presented.

In 2002 Oscar Mayer offered a contest for students fifth grade or below to create a video of one of the Oscar Mayer jingles. “I decided to take what I remembered from singing barbershop in the 1990s and put it to work. First, I arranged a four-part treble version of ‘I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener’, then I created costumes, props and a choreographed routine, taught it to a group of grades 2-5 and video-taped their performance. We didn’t win, but we had started something that seemed to work.”    

Warnega’s significant success with younger children can, in part, also be attributed to his Kodaly training and certification. The Kodaly methodology was developed and evolved with an underlying approach that parallels childhood development and capabilities. Choral Director will further explore some of the seemingly unconventional methods employed by Wernega at Quinton.

What impact has this innovative music program had? Some prior students are now music teachers. Parents have taken on the roles that a larger staff would have provided. And the Salem High School receives students with extraordinary music skills.

Wernega has posted numerous online videos of the various Quinton musical group’s performances on YouTube. Search by the group name (from the article above) and select a performance to view. Be ready to tap your feet and hum along. Applause will come naturally and even a tear or two of sheer joy!

The purpose of this article was not just to showcase an unusual and highly successful public-school vocal music program but to introduce or amplify what creativity and tenacity can accomplish. And, yes, I realize that I’m truly “preaching to the choir!”

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