Barbershop Harmony Society

By Mike Lawson

Share This:

I’ve always been peripherally aware of barbershop as a vocal music art form. However, my own participation in choral groups was either a cappella or more often, accompanied on piano. It was the classical school of harmony. The “barbershop chord” is a world of consonant four-part harmonic 7th chords in every melody note, in a homorhythm texture. That’s not a harmonic structure our vocal classes were taught.

Outside of school, it’s a genre very few of your students may only ever see on Main Street at Disney World, or in a gag on Family Guy. The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon has been showing some pretty hilarious arrangements of modern pop music arranged for barbershop harmonies in “The Ragtime Gals” performances. Your students have no doubt seen these. They have gone on to have millions of views on YouTube. While they are funny and even ironic in song selection, they actually get the arrangements and performances right, as I recently witnessed. Though the song selection is meant to be humorous, it also shows how you can adapt a very wide range of popular music to barbershop arrangements. That’s cool, and it makes it even more fun.

Sing in the Sunshine (State)

During the last week of October, I went to the 2018 Sunshine District Fall Convention of the Barbershop Harmony Society. (The Sunshine District includes chapters in the state of Florida.) I had no idea of the experience I was about to have when I stepped inside of their world. Having never been to a barbershop convention, I didn’t know the genre created such an enthusiastic subculture of vocal music disciples, spanning far across all ethnic, age, and gender boundaries. If my only direct cultural reference to barbershop were occasional nostalgia performances or TV show comedy sketches, how could I have known? Do your students know?

All of the young (and not so young) singers from across the state of Florida were fired up (and up very late!) having an amazing time creating “pop-up” instant quartets, outside of their intense rehearsals and performances for the actual convention competitions. Spontaneous groups of barbershop singers gathered all over the hotel, trading tag lines from barbershop songs. There is even an app for that called “Tag Master.” Singers were in the lobby, outside the hotel, in the halls, by the pool, in the parking lot — everywhere! Their talent was matched only by their excitement. It takes a very well-trained ear to hear the part and jump right in on it. Standing in a corridor and hearing an ad hoc group holding a chord at the end of a tag line could easily bring goosebumps to the listener. This was fun!

In Florida, as with Barbershop Harmony Society chapters around the country, these diverse groups and their boosters gathered together by the hundreds and took over the hotel for their adjudicated competition, packing a performance room with well over 450 listeners. It was a two-day event and was livestreamed on Facebook with a multi-camera video production. The Sunshine District wasn’t messing around. The production quality, the audio equipment, the synchronized timing of the ushers to open and close doors between performances, every step was choreographed along the way. The groups were photographed, then taken backstage while another group was busy on stage delivering the two song selections for their shot at winning that evening. On the stage, get the note, sing. Next song, off the stage, lights up, doors open for five minutes, then shut tight, the lights go down and the next group is introduced by the emcee. If you missed getting back in, you stood outside and watched on a TV monitor until the performers were done.

High-Energy Variety

This stirring performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” featured over 750 singers from around the world to join in for one huge finale at the 2018 Midwinter Convention in Orange County, California.

At the Sunshine District event, I didn’t see any stereotypical striped jackets or straw boater hats. The song selections were not rehashed “Down by the Old Mill Stream” songs, either, though there was plenty of homage paid to the genre’s classics. This was a competition, and these quartets brought their A-games. One diverse young group nailed a performance of “Beyond the Sea,” with a barbershop arrangement based on the 1959 version of the song made famous by the late, great Bobby Darin. Another group made lavish Wizard of Oz costumes and performed a barbershop arrangement of “If I Only Had a Heart.” There were classic songs along with modern pop songs performed, all custom-arranged in barbershop harmony.

I was really impressed with the singing, with the energy, the stage presence of each act. And I learned this, while there were plenty of older folks singing, this is not your grandpa’s vocal hobby. The students participating were really into it — rehearsing their vocals and stage mannerisms, seeking or even writing their own custom arrangements.

The Next Generation of Barbershop Singers

It’s safe to say most K-12 vocal students in the U.S.A. are less exposed to barbershop singing than they are to traditional choral and a cappella music, but that’s something the Barbershop Harmony Society aims to change with a new music educator initiative.

I followed up with after the Florida trip with the Barbershop Harmony Society, based in Nashville, Tennessee, to learn more about how they plan to make sure this and future generations of vocal students don’t miss out on all that this vocal art form has to offer.

When and why did the Barbershop Harmony Society decided to launch a teacher membership?

Caki Gray, Director of Membership: We have been discussing a Music Education Partner membership option for 5 or more years. As our week-long education experience (Harmony University) expanded to include a music education track and our youth barbershop chorus festival grew into several different opportunities for young people to sing and engage (Next Generation Barbershop), we began to see more and more music educators involved in barbershop. Educators have the responsibility and the opportunity to serve hundreds of young singers a year, and we have the resources (sheet music, education classes, singing festivals, local barbershop groups) to assist them as they invest in the future of the arts. After discussions with the music educators who already participate in our events and classes, we sought to create a membership option that would give Music Educators benefits tailored specifically to their needs – including an affordable cost. Our recent strategic vision of Everyone in Harmony and the decision to open membership to EVERYONE (regardless of gender) allowed us to launch an equitable option for all our partners in Music Education. More information is available at barbershop.org/partner

Directed by Douglas Carnes, new barbershoppers from St. Louis Park Middle School Chorus (Minnesota) take the stage to showcase the ultimate joy of performing

How important is aligning with the choral education world to the preservation of barbershop singing?

Donny Rose, Director of Music Education: The church and community choir world is very different today than it was 30 years ago when there were more choices for places to sing. North America now considers singing an experience largely left to the professionals. Barbershop is the champion of amateur singing, while still making room for the professional and semi-professional singers. Singers who participated in school choirs have a place to make music in barbershop ensembles, especially in secular settings. Further, barbershop is uniquely intergenerational. This setting gives younger people a chance to interact socially with older people in a truly collaborative, equal environment.
Barbershop is a uniquely American musical expression, with roots to African American history in the barber shops of the southern United States. Barbershop music is a specific style of arranging: rich, four-part harmony with a lot of development and embellishments and the melody in the second voice. It has a different flavor from traditional choral music, as barbershop employs more seventh chords.

Barbershop for many choral singers is the culmination of so many aspects of music education. Advanced theory, aural skills, and musical expression are all found here. Barbershop is easy enough that any beginning singer can have fun doing it, but it can also be very difficult, as good barbershop singing employs advanced tuning techniques that develops the singer’s ear and musicianship. Barbershop ensembles truly enjoy singing and sharing music with audiences, so they make concentrated efforts to connect to the music with highly stylized expression techniques.

What are the benefits a music educator joining the BHS can expect? What resources will they have access to as members?

Holly J. Kellar, Chief Marketing Officer: When music educators join the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Music Education Partner program, not only will they join a network of tens of thousands of singers, but they’ll also gain access to professional development resources, classroom materials and programming, and destination events that will energize students.

Music Education Partners have access to the BHS Member Center, connecting them with thousands of barbershoppers and music educators across North America; they receive a discounted rate to Harmony University, a week-long education experience in Nashville, Tennessee with a specialized music educator track (including a limited number of full scholarships for educators); a 10 percent discount on over 4,000 sheet music titles, audio and learning tracks, and other merchandise at shop.barbershop.org; full member access to barbershop education resources and preferred pricing on special online classes; a complimentary subscription to The Harmonizer — the official Barbershop Harmony Society magazine; and the chance to enter men’s, women’s, and mixed ensembles into Next Generation events (options for ages 18 and under, and 18 – 25) at the Midwinter Convention held each January and the International Convention every July. 

Will teachers who join have opportunities or venues to allow students to perform in by joining?

Joe Cerutti, Director of Outreach: Next Generation Barbershop offers unique opportunities for Junior level (ages 18 and under) or Varsity level (ages 25 and under) quartets and choruses of any type: men’s, women’s, or mixed voice quartets and choruses.  The Junior Chorus Invitational and Quartet Contest (at the Midwinter Convention in January) is great for ensembles of any skill level and offer a choral festival atmosphere with an immersion of masterclasses and an unforgettable mass youth chorus experience. The Varsity Chorus Invitational and Quartet Contest (at the International Convention in July) offers an experience of the very best in vocal harmony and opportunities to learn about elite-level harmony, tuning, showmanship, and some uniquely American musical literature. Our application process is simple and various scholarships are available for all programs within Next Generation Barbershop. Next Generation Barbershop gives youth a foundation for a lifetime of singing. More information available at barbershop.org/nextgen.

Note: Next Generation Barbershop programs are open to all music educators and their students — Barbershop Harmony Society membership is not required.

What do you hope to achieve by attracting choral director educators to BHS membership?

Holly J. Kellar, Chief Marketing Officer: The mission of the Barbershop Harmony Society is to “bring people together in harmony and fellowship to enrich lives through singing.” We believe that singing together is good, and more people singing together is even better!  If our tools, services, and efforts can help music educators get more students singing, then we ALL win.

Don’t Miss Out

I can’t help but believe that my ear would have been better, my ability to harmonize vastly improved, if barbershop harmony structure had been part of my vocal education experience.

With this new educational initiative from the Barbershop Harmony Society, your students won’t have to miss out. There is a whole universe of exciting resources waiting for you and your students at barbershop.org/education/free-educators-guide.

Complete information is available at barbershop.org/partner

Leave a Comment

The Latest News and Tips in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!

Check Out Some Past Choral Director Magazine Issues