Barbershop Chorus Competition Serious and Fun Business

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“The Alexandria Harmonizers” from northern Virginia have won international titles.
“The Alexandria Harmonizers” from northern Virginia have won international titles.

by Valerie Garner

Harmony filled the halls of the Hotel Roanoke this past weekend with melodies both old and new as the Southern Division Barbershop Quartet contest was held Friday evening. Barbershop Choruses competed Saturday morning. The Virginia Gentlemen Chorus of the Roanoke Valley hosted the convention with Dennis Ritchie as Master of Ceremonies.

Bob Johnson, a baritone with the Harrisonburg Harmonizers Chorus said, “It takes practice … practice and a lot of preparation and years of dedication.” New members must first learn the words and the music at home. A coach then helps with holding the vowels and the cutoffs. They get together several times a week with the director and they practice on a riser.

Working in the choreography on top of everything else takes long hours, said Johnson, who also sings with the Blarney Brothers Quartet. He explained that of the two song selections for the contest one is usually what he called a “gut buster” followed up by a soft song.

Ray Bishop, base singer with the Virginia Gentlemen of the Roanoke Valley said, “Staying crisp and in tune is the hardest part.” They have to peak at the right time and keep everything in line. Some choral groups were conservatively dressed in tuxedo or suits and vests. Others sported costumes matching various themes. The Virginia Gentlemen wore joker hats as they sang “A Fool Such as I.” The fifth place AAA chorus, the Fairfax Jubilaires wore costumes of the 1930s and took on a challenging song of soldiers leaving for war – “So Long Mother, Kiss Your Boy Goodbye.”

Johnson says that all the hard work is worth it and it is all about going out into the community and “giving joy to people.”

A roar went up in the audience as the Virginia Gentlemen, directed by Tim Service, won third place overall but were number one in their AAA plateau with a score of 69.3 percent. That was a significant feat, said President Bert Hubbard. First place went to AAAA plateau chorus, the Alexandria Harmonizers, who have won international championship titles. Second place went to AAAA Soundworks of James River, Virginia. The top five qualify for the October Mid-Atlantic District contest in Ocean City, Maryland.

The pace was brisk for the 12 choral groups Saturday. Johnson said they are always a little nervous in front of such a large audience. Friday evening there were 28 quartets competing. First place went to Acme Chord Company from Alexandria and D.C. Hubbard was proud of Roanoke’s young fledgling group “Ben and the Boyz.” They won the “Novice Quartet” trophy and came in 15th overall.

 A barbershop quartet consists of four people who sing a cappella (without instrument accompaniment.) Many choral groups sing well-known barbershop tunes like “Sweet Adeline” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

Many barbershop quartet singers also choose to sing in a chorus, like Bob Johnson. There are small choruses as well as choruses with over 100 members like the Alexandria Hamonizers.

The Barbershop Harmony Society, legally and historically named the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc. (SPEBSQSA), is the first of several organizations to promote and preserve barbershop music as an art form. Founded by Owen C. Cash in 1938, the organization quickly grew, promoting barbershop harmony among men of all ages. In the United States and Canada there are about 30,000 members whose focus is on a cappella music. The international headquarters was in Kenosha, Wisconsin for fifty years before moving to Nashville, Tennessee in 2007.

If you can carry a tune all are welcome to give it a try, said President Bert Hubbard. The Virginia Gentlemen are on the web at www.vagents.org.