Barbershop quartets: Not just for men any more
Jim Crowley became director of the Carson City Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society in November.
He is a 40-year member of the chapter, and has a master’s degree in music education from Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Fla. He coaches men’s a capella choruses and quartets within the district, which includes California and Nevada.
The chapter is sponsoring 10 young men from Dayton, Carson and Douglas high schools to perform in the 2007 Far Western District 17th annual High School Quartet Contest March 17 at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks.
Did “barbershop quartets” really sing around the banded pole in front of a barbershop? Is that how they got their name?
Back in the early 1900s, men congregated in the barbershop and sang improvised harmony while waiting for a haircut. The early barbershop quartet was immortalized by Norman Rockwell with his painting, “Barbershop Quartet,” which appeared on the Sept. 26, 1936, cover of (The Saturday Evening) Post magazine. And, yes, the singing style became known as “barbershop” because that was where harmonizing was popular. One of the first uses of the term “barbershop” was in a song written in 1911: “Mr. Jefferson Lord, play that barbershop chord.”
How have barbershops survived over the years? Are as many men interested in the group today as, say, 60 years ago?
The popularity of barbershop harmony started to decline in the late 1930s with the advent of the radio and the big-band era. In order to help preserve this uniquely American art form, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America was founded in Tulsa, Okla., in 1938. This “lengthy” name was a tongue-in-cheek idea designed to poke fun at President Franklin Roosevelt’s many New Deal agencies. The society is now known as the “Barbershop Harmony Society,” and it survives today because we still enjoy the thrill of “ringing a chord” with four voices. We have more than 30,000 members in more than 800 chapters across North America.
It seems most of your members are of an “advanced age.” Is this a requirement; do you encourage younger men to join?
While it is true that the average age is going up, the society has an active “Youth in Harmony” program, which brings barbershop harmony to colleges, high schools and middle schools. The chapter in Carson City, the Chorus of the Comstock, is sponsoring boys from Carson, Douglas and Dayton high schools to the 2007 High School Quartet Contest at Reno in March. We also support an annual weekend “Youth Harmony Camp” for middle school and high school boys held in September at Pollock Pines, Calif.
Do you perform on a regular basis? Or just for fun?
There are two active chapters in Northern Nevada: the Chorus of the Comstock in Carson City and the “Silver Dollar Chorus” in Reno. Both chapters do performances for community organizations, city functions, holidays, and (usually) put on an annual show. Two of our chapter quartets from Carson City sang a total of 72 “singing valentines” delivered to homes and businesses throughout the Carson City and Douglas County area. This is our annual fundraising event, and it is a real pleasure for us to sing to the lucky recipients.
Are singing styles the same today as they were when barbershop quartets began?
At its beginning, the barbershop art form was largely improvised and sung without music. Barbershop harmony is part of the continuum of American music that traces to African-American musical roots similar to those that sparked ragtime, rhythm ‘n’ blues and jazz. We’ve come a long way from the early quartets of the ’30s and ’40s. Certified arrangers, directors and coaches are making our amateur singers sound better and better. Today, quartets and choruses use choral singing techniques with quality arrangements that result in a really amazing singing experience for both the performer and the listener, yet many of our members do not read music or have any formal musical training.
Do you have to have professional singing experience to join?
There is no requirement for formal musical training or experience. However, since we sing a cappella (unaccompanied), one must be able to sing in tune and be able to memorize the music and lyrics.
Is there an organization for women who want to sing barbershop harmony?
Yes, there are two: Sweet Adelines International (30,000 members) and Harmony Inc. (2,700 members). The local Chapter of Sweet Adelines International meets in Reno on Monday evenings. For information, contact Barbara Rich at, email@example.com.
When and where do you meet? Who does someone call for more information?
The Chorus of the Comstock meets at 7:30 p.m. every Thursday evening at the Carson Plaza Retirement Residence, 2120 E. Long St. We welcome men of all ages who like to sing. Contact Ted Nagel at (775) 720-8316 or me at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
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