An October 19 story on the renaissance in barbershop music misstated the workings of the diaphragm, the muscle in the chest that controls breathing. When inhaling, the diaphragm contracts. When exhaling, the diaphragm relaxes. (Published 11/02/1999)
Shine on, shine on, harvest moon.
They are the sweet sounds of a bygone era--a Norman Rockwell time when friends gathered and enjoyed the simple act of singing barbershop harmony together.
Let me call you sweetheart, I'm in love with you!
But this unique American music is gaining in popularity again and hundreds of people around the country of all ages are joining choral groups dedicated to barbershop music.
I want a girl, just like the girl, that married dear old dad.
Barbershop harmony--like Dixieland jazz, cowboy songs and gospel singing--is a indigenous American musical art form. Although many people may associate it with four men dressed in striped jackets singing old ballads, today both men and women--although seldom together--sing this music. In small and large groups, they often compete at local, national or even international levels.
People with average vocal ranges and skills can sing this harmony--a factor that has increased the popularity of the music. Lyrics celebrate heartfelt emotions--young love, friendship, mother ("I Miss Mother Most of All")--and nostalgia for days gone by. Old favorites include "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," "Melancholy Baby" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band." But it is not unusual for choruses also to sing Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," Elvis Presley medleys and selections from musicals, such as "West Side Story" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
Part of the resurgence is social. Singing with people who share a love of this music provides a strong camaraderie. Karen Serum is a 62-year-old member of the Potomac Harmony Showtime Chorus and drives 95 miles from her home in Mineral, Va., to practice each week in Arlington. She says barbershop singing "makes us stay young. I cavort around stage [during competitions] in a red satin dress. I don't know people my age who do that. People in my community go to bed early, and I'm here late singing."
Barbershop harmony is a cappella, which means there is no instrumental accompaniment. The singing is in four-part harmony. The voice parts are the tenor, the lead (who carries the melody), the baritone and the bass. The lead singer is responsible for conveying the interpretation, emotion and inflections of the song. The other three singers, who do the harmonizing, follow the lead in tempo and support the lead's inflection, artistry and finesse. The tenor is the highest of the four parts and is sung above the melody.
Because the baritone frequently crosses over the lead, people sometimes call him or her the "junk man." By lore, baritones are the butts of barbershop humor. The bass is the lowest part, providing the harmonic foundation. Bass singers should have a rich, mellow voice and be able to sing the E flat below middle C easily.
Barbershoppers use many musical embellishments, such as swipes and tags. Swipes are progressions of two or more chords sung on a single word or syllable. Tags are short songs or beautiful endings to songs, the final six or eight measures that cap the performance.
A distinctive feature of barbershop harmony is the phenomenon of expanded sound, called ringing a chord. Singers create it when the four voices reinforce each other to produce audible overtones and undertones. Creating that "fifth voice" is a thrilling musical sensation.
"Achieving overtones and having the four voices doing all nine million things correctly, when you then hear a fifth or even sixth voice singing, is the most fun thing this side of Christmas, making love and laughing," says Mike Stoll, 50, a member of the Fairfax Jubil-Aires, a men's barbershop chorus.
"We hope expanded sound happens in all our barbershop chords, and generally that comprises 60 percent or more of a song's total chords," Stoll continues. "An audience doesn't understand expanded sound--our ultimate goal--but it has fun nevertheless and knows it's being entertained because [we] performers are having fun entertaining."
Many of the people who sing in local groups are members of one of three international organizations that help preserve and promote this music. The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America Inc. (SPEBSQSA) is a men's group with more than 34,000 members in 800 chapters. Women barbershop singers can join the Sweet Adelines International, with 30,000 members, or Harmony Inc., with 2,800 women concentrated in the northern and eastern regions of North America.
To sing well, barbershoppers must work on their posture and breathing all the time. The perfect stance is to have the weight on the balls of the feet, sternum up, rib cage up and expanded, knees unlocked, shoulders comfortable, no tension in the throat, neck or jaw, say chorus members.
Singers must also be relaxed, smile and breathe correctly. As they pull their diaphragms in and up and tighten them, the singers exhale. It's the same breathing you'd do for any exercise, singers explain. Many barbershoppers believe that habits they develop for singing provide benefits in their daily life.
"Good singing posture is good living posture," says Ozzi Mask, of Annandale, director of the Potomac Harmony Showtime Chorus, which has 92 women members. Singers, she says, should transfer barbershop vocal training to their jobs. Knowing how to use their singing voices correctly helps "to prevent strains in our talking," Mask says.
Lawyer Karen Hanchett, 42 of Arlington, also a member of the Potomac Harmony Showtime Chorus, says singing improved her speaking voice. She now has "more resonance" and her utterances are "not as flat in tone or thin" as they once were, she says.
Others find more far-reaching benefits. Melanie Casey, 43, of Arlington, another member of the group, has suffered depression and joint pain associated with the autoimmune disorder lupus for seven years. She says, "Music has healing power. It uses your brain so much remembering songs and [choreographed] movements that you can't stay depressed or worried. A lot of smiling goes on here at rehearsals. This group doesn't let you feel sorry for yourself. No pity parties here."
Officials of Sweet Adelines International say such singing prepares members for the demands of contemporary living. The women develop interpersonal and organizational skills that enable them to achieve at home and on the job, and they are exposed to show business, travel, physical exercise, lifelong friends and a commitment to the common goal of musical excellence.
"We barbershoppers create something beautiful out of nothing, like an artist," says Casey. "In the process, we are always learning about music, our abilities and how people work together for the same goal. Whether you're part of a quartet, a chorus member or singing with more than 1,000 Sweet Adelines or singing with even more in an international competition during a mass sing, you're contributing to the beautiful sounds."
For more information or to locate the barbershop chorus closest to you, contact:
* Sweet Adelines International, 5334 East 46th Street, Tulsa, OK 74135-6603; 1-800-992-7464 Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed 1 to 2 p.m.).
* Harmony Inc., 2711 Fourth Street A, East Moline, IL 61244-2651; 309-755-0143.
* SPEBSQSA Inc., 6315 Third Ave., Kenosha, WI 53143-5199; 1-800-876-7464 (1-800-876-SING), Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Birth of Modern Barbershopping
Grounded overnight by bad weather in a Kansas City hotel in 1938, two harmony-hungry men met in a hotel and began an organization for singers that has lasted 61 years.
Owen C. Cash, a tax lawyer, lonely that night long ago, asked Rupert I. Hall, an investment banker, if he could sing tenor. Barbershop music had grown somewhat out of fashion at the time, but Hall confidently replied, "I suppose I'm the best barbershop tenor in the United States." They sang together, staying on pitch. "We concluded that we were terribly good and canvassed the hotel lobby for a lead and bass," Cash said, to round out a "fairly good quartet."
With such success, Cash decided to found a men's singing society and named it The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America Inc., or SPEBSQSA. Explaining the long-initialed name he devised for the organization, Cash said that President Franklin Roosevelt was forming government agencies with alphabetical acronyms--TVA, WPA--"and I thought we ought to have a name longer than any of them."
By SPEBSQSA's third meeting, America's barbershopping tradition had begun: 150 men came to sing, attracting so many onlookers that traffic was badly disrupted outside the hotel. "We had important business," Cash said, "so we paid no attention until a reporter from the Tulsa World came in. He said he had seen the cars jammed up and had asked the cops about the 'wreck.' "
An officer replied, "There's no wreck. It's just some damn fools up there singing."
The next morning, a headline in the paper proclaimed "Musical History in the Making."
CAPTION: The Southgate Barber Shop Quartet, based in Bowie, performed at the Richard R. Clark Senior Center in La Plata on the Fourth of July.
CAPTION: Members of the Potomac Harmony Showtime Chorus rehearse at a school in Arlington.