My friend Grant Orchard and I paid a visit to the East York Barbershoppers this week. Grant, a fellow tenor singer in newchoir, has been intrigued by the close, four-part male harmonies particular to this style of a cappella singing, and I have been waxing nostalgic lately about a musical form to which I once enjoyed a very close connection. So we took advantage of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s open door policy of letting the curious drop in on their regular weekly rehearsal night to see it all in action.
I had arranged earlier with Barry Tripp, VP Chapter Development, for us to visit on a Tuesday night in June at Harmony Hall, the Gower Street rehearsal facility the chapter owns. Somehow, our wires got crossed and we showed up a week earlier than he was expecting. Bonus for us, it turned out, because we got to take in their final rehearsal before a Saturday show and see director Pat Hannon vigorously working the 40-something member chorus: ironing out wrinkles and fluffing up nuance in their repertoire as he tweaked his wall of sound.
We were made to feel as welcome as … uh … the flowers in May: invited immediately into pleasant conversations and in participation in ritualistic warmup routines, and then had binders containing current repertoire thrust into our hands.
Because we were coming from an existing musical experience, and I from a barbershop background, we were given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to stand on the risers (generally not done on first visit). Tenor section leader Bob Wilson — a man of good humor and fine vocal tone — watched over us lest we stray, guiding us in passages where we did not know to abandon the sheet music for a custom take that had been developed according to the character of this group. (Or where we flat out got it wrong.)
At break time, Barry trotted us to the front for an official introduction to the group. There was a third visitor on this night, a veteran of the Scarborough Dukes of Harmony chorus who now lives nearby. To the three of us, the chorus sang with gusto (“You’re As Welcome As the Flowers in May”, barbershoppers’ official welcoming anthem) and then, to a man, the singers filed by to shake our hands and welcome us personally.
Part of the image of a regular barbershop meeting night I had painted in Grant’s mind included quartets, formal or informal, cropping up here and there — and there and here, and just about anywhere — during the course of the night. He had caught a glimpse of that with the in-rehearsal antics of The Blenders, an Australian barbershop chorus participating with newchoir and other ensembles in Total Vocal at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 29.
Because the East York Barbershoppers chorus was on a tight prep schedule this night, however, only one quartet materialized during official proceedings. But we were invited downstairs after rehearsal, and all things advertised became true!
First, there was an impressive tour of a museum where the history of barbershopping in Canada is preserved. Barry was our tour guide and George Shields, a founding member of the 65-year-old chapter, added some personal anecdotal color to points of interest, and they were both keen to elaborate on the Gordon Lightfoot connection. Then it was on to the chapter’s man cave, where we fellowshipped with the guys — and where a whole lot of singing broke out!
We found ourselves pulled into makeshift quartets to sing barbershop staple Polecat songs and then to ring some tags, which Pat taught us on the fly. True to barbershop form, tenors, leads, baritones and basses were easily swapped in and out to form entirely new quartet sounds, each man nearly flawless in knowing his own part (and sometimes more than one) in whatever number was called.
I must confess, I have missed the thrill of the impromptu blend — the pure quartet sound produced by a group of men you might be tempted to believe had been singing together for years but who just as likely could have met only a few minutes ago. And the polished sound of the practiced permanent quartets too, of course.
Barbershoppers think of what they do as a hobby, but don’t be misled by their jovial camaraderie and casual self-regard: they take their music very seriously. Their stock in trade is precision and they are as ferociously dedicated to getting it right as anyone. As for the standard Polecat songs, you’re expected to know your part so well you can fit into a quartet anywhere (on Earth, that is) you happen to meet the three other voice parts.
But the thing that stands out about them is the joy they derive from their music. There is always a song on their lips.
Some musicians I know from the Total Vocal event were kind of puzzled by the behavior of The Blenders: they harmonized, rang chords and, if not in the process of perfecting a particular number, joyously broke into some random song — anywhere and everywhere.
This is what barbershoppers do. Nay, this is who barbershoppers are!
This is what was on full display for Grant and I at Harmony Hall on Tuesday night, even throughout the tedium of tweaking passages in music they had already conquered. It was the driving pulse in the joyous rendition, at the end, of “We Sing That They May Speak/Keep the Whole World Singing”, the closing anthem for BHS chapter meetings everywhere.
And particularly so afterward, down in the man cave, where I got to drink the enchanting elixir conjured up by quartet singing until giddy with delight.