“This,” the director said, snatching a chorus member’s papers, “is not music.” He threw it on the floor. “Music exists only in this immediate moment.”
I smiled in understanding, but I don’t think he saw me. And the evening went on.
A cappella singing is like no other, and barbershop is a special branch that I hold dear. The four parts, from lowest to highest, are bass, baritone, lead, and tenor. The lead part has the melody of the song, and the three other parts are harmony (bass usually as a vocal rhythm, baritone weaving around the melody, and tenor trilling at the top). I usually sing tenor, but one chorus needed basses and I had the ability, so that’s what I sang—and I’m a better tenor for it. It takes so much to be able to produce chords in these choruses. Fundamentally, everyone must be on pitch, but the actual correct singing requires much more: First, one must breathe deeply and in the right place (into the base of the lungs, without raising the shoulders). Next, one must create proper vowel shape with the mouth (there are actually many different ways to say the “oh” sound, for instance) and make sure it matches the other singers’ mouth shape. The singer also has to use “resonation chambers” in the body. It’s like we’re cathedrals, and if you want the best sound you have to sing in the stone hall instead of in the bathroom; you have to sing into the sinus cavities and as if the crown of your head is the Tacoma Dome.
After you create the right note by achieving all that (constantly, and while keeping correct posture and foot position, remembering notes, words, and maybe even choreography, and smiling), your part relies on the others to do the same so that the whole chord may “lock.” Even if every person is technically hitting the right note, the chord may not lock—they must also be doing everything to be actually singing correctly. Then, even if the chord has locked, it may not ring (but that’s unusual).
It may seem too hit-and-miss to even bother trying. But when a chord rings, and when you’re able to hear it while singing rather than just knowing it because of the pleased director, it’s the most rewarding feeling in the world. Ringing chords creates overtones, which are notes above the chord that no one is actually singing. They’re clearly audible—it’s not just a mind trick—but also surreal, because for all the work it took to produce the actual chord, no one singer is creating the overtone. It takes the entire group, and those overtones are what we always strive for. When we don’t have an actual audience, the overtones are like the heavens’ applause.
[This is a very short excerpt from the final paper I wrote for my class in our last quarter. As with all the content on my blog, please do not reproduce it in any way, except perhaps with proper citation :) If you ask me, I’d probably be happy to give my permission!]