The Virginia Gentlemen Get Tough to Get It Right

Director Tim Service leads the barbershop chorus with gusto and a smile.

by Cheryl Hodges

The small audience that attended the practice session last Monday evening for the Virginia Gentlemen  barbershop chorus all had a similar expression, perhaps best described as a slack smile with a big dose of wide-eyed wonder as they sat captivated by the unique chorus. Nearly 30 men covered the risers, led by their enthusiastic and apparently “fearless” leader, Tim Service.

Service is “comfortably fearless” and has no qualms about admonishing whomever might not have his part quite figured out yet. “Getting lambasted” he calls it. At one point, one of the singers jumped out to see who was not carrying the right notes. They had an intense tete-a-tete, albeit from across the bleachers, which resolved almost as quickly as it began.

Service turns and adds with a smile, “I do it all; I get ‘em pumped!”

Even in practice, the a capella group is professional and captivating—it’s like listening to a Barbershop Quartet (on steroids) multiplied many times over.  Each singer seems transformed by the experience; there is a sense of total focus that is required that ultimately becomes a part of the act. It all adds up to a great time for the performers and audience alike.

Some of the numbers the group is presently working on include: “Please Mr.  Columbus,” “George M. Cohen Medley” (Grand Old Flag), and two “contest” pieces which they will perform in the Mid-Atlantic District Barbershop Competition in Lancaster, Pennsylvania this September.

It doesn’t take very long in chatting with any of the singers to get a sense of the passion that each brings to the group. Terms that are typically associated with sports pepper the conversation.  They have “physical warm-ups, breathing exercises” and they practice the gestures that go along with some pieces, which is an extremely important part of the performance. In fact, sometimes the piece is practiced in silence—the guys have to tell the story with choreographed gestures only.

The Virginia Gentlemen have been around since 1970 and according to their Mission Statement “aims to become the premier male a capella singing organization in Western Virginia.” They also claim to be “appealing to men of all ages who seek to be a part of a high quality vocal performing group known for its fun, fellowship and harmony.” That would appear to be true, as the group’s youngest member is a 17-year-old and long-termer Phil Sterner has been with the group for 56 years.

What causes guys to be so devoted to such a group? In addition to the fellowship and fun, it is just a bit addicting, according to Service. He began with a similar group in the Tidewater area in 1973 as a senior in High School and has “been hooked ever since.” Did someone actually mention “endorphins” and is there really something called “Harmony College?” Yes and yes.

There is a feeling that these men share a sixth sense for sound, and in some ways they do. Service, who has a music degree from Virginia Tech, explains that there is a phenomenon with this type of harmony called “a ring.” He says that most people are used to listening to groups in church for example, that have three part harmony.

Service says, “In four parts, it’s the physics involved. When four parts are sung correctly the overtones can produce a fifth tone [that no one is actually singing] that is audible—we call it a ‘ring’ which ‘locks.’” With good acoustics there can be additional undertones too.  He says it doesn’t happen with every song but the idea is to have that as the goal. This might help explain the mesmerizing aspect of their art.

The group performs throughout the year, including their annual show in November, and offers Singing Valentines in February. They have already performed at the Virginia Veterans Care Center and at Attic Productions in Fincastle among others this year; they call these smaller venues “Sing Outs.”

Barber-shopping conjures an aging group that doesn’t have a prominent place in modern day music, but in fact, according to Dave Davis, Public Relations Chairman, “it’s not dying out; it’s just not growing.”  Service added that “there is a strong movement within the society to get youth involved – young men in harmony.”

The Virginia Gentlemen has at least one father / son pair in the chorus, Jim Sherman (dad) and his son Ben who is home-schooled. Jim said it was his son who insisted on coming with him. It was whispered that Ben is “REALLY good.” A friend of Sherman’s, Lee McLennan, brought his son Chad, who is home from college to practice also. All four seemed to be naturals.

After practice, Director Tim Service leaned over to try once more to convey the importance and the essence of the group, in reference to the art of barber-shopping and perhaps also the experience of being in such a gathering: “synergy: the sum is greater than the parts,” he said with satisfaction. That would be the “ring” … and so much more.


Visitors are welcome at practice which takes place Monday evenings at 7 at College Lutheran Church in Salem. An audition is required to join. Visit for more information.


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