For musicians and non-musicians alike, "barbershop singing" recalls The Music Man's Ice Cream Quartet and the bright hum of a pitch pipe. Audiences won't guess that participation in barbershop singing can entail three-hour rehearsals, vowel-matching, breath plans, lyric mapping, and international competition.
Barbershop is a cappella four-part harmony marked by elaborate slides, inverted chords, and attention to overtones. Its lighthearted performance often belies the musicianship needed to "ring the chords" — to sing with such accurate pitch and pronunciation that the chords create more notes than voices.
How does that work? Well, the four parts of barbershop are designed to produce overtones. Singing the melody, the lead defines the musical interpretation. Providing a secondary lyrical line, the bass lays the foundation for the overtone series. The tenor sings into the overtones created by the bass, her part resembling a descant. The baritone gets the notes that only a music theory nerd could love: major sevenths, tritones, accidentals.
Though I've been singing baritone with Jacksonville Harmony Chorus for eight years, I've recently started singing lead in a new quartet called Chordinated. The change has been an incredible musical challenge. As the lead, I designate the dynamics, breaths, and emotions of the music: I am the authority onstage.
As a classical soprano, I've been in several performance ensembles — but this is my first time in a quartet. Jeanie (bass) and Danielle (tenor) are also beginners. Our experienced baritone, Debbie, helps plan rehearsals and directs rigorous vowel-matching warmups. A quartet will only ring chords when each singer produces every vowel identically: the guide for pronunciation is the lead's voice. After routines of sliding scales, chords, and arpeggios, we focus on our music for competition. In April, we'll compete in a regional contest with other choruses and quartets. Winners of regional competition progress to international competition, and quartets who win international are called "Queens of Harmony." We want to be Queens.
Work on contest songs often includes duetting: where two parts rehearse to produce a unified sound. As we duet, we change position — singing cheek-to-cheek, behind one another, or beside each other. Sometimes we sing in "quartet formation," a semicircle with lead and bass in the center. Occasionally we form a tight circle, singing across to one another.
Barbershop demands my classical training in music theory as I navigate through difficult chords and key changes. However, most of the singing technique I apply here does not come from my classical training. Singing lead requires more frontal resonance: sending the tone "into the mask" so that it resonates in my cheekbones and forehead. I also use my hard palate when the lead has a "post" — a sustained note that grows while the other parts move around it.
Barbershop singing allows me to be more physically expressive. Chordinated has been coached by two Queens who emphasized using our legs and arms to help produce sound. While singing barbershop, I allow my knees and hands to express tension, invitation, anticipation, relief. The physical movement produces a more consistent sound.
Though I've only been singing lead since November, I'm discovering an intense love for musical interpretation. My quartet indulges me as I change the keys of our songs until I find the key that best suits our voices. Barbershop singers are notoriously lax about the written score. Our sheet music functions like the loose guidelines for medieval chants: rhythms can be rushed or stretched depending on the lead's design and the quartet's abilities. The lead is harmonically situated like the cantus firmus of centuries past, unlike the soprano-centric melodies of most SATB arrangements.
Working toward competition, Chordinated are rehearsing for several hours each week — in addition to our chorus's three-hour practices. We've lined up coaching sessions with chorus directors and Queens from our region. And on the advice of one Queen, we sing our music on lip trills for 10 minutes every day. In this quartet, I'm a novice again, singing in a new place both musically and physically.
Emily Michael is a writer, musician, and English instructor living in Jacksonville, Florida. When she's not involved in academic pursuits, she works with blind and visually impaired people and their families, teaching self-advocacy and independent living skills.
Interested in writing about classical music for Classical MPR? Have a story about classical music to share? We want to hear from you!