The Reason I Go to Chorus

“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!]

The Reason I Go to Chorus

I’m Sold to OC Times

As promised, the OC Times quartet deserved its own post. I am stoked that they won their competition. Here’s a little background.

See here for a general history/overview of barbershop singing, which has been around for ages and ages. Today, there are two international organizations that promote barbershop singing; one is the Barbershop Harmony Society, which is the men’s division. It has been around since 1938. The women’s division is Sweet Adelines, and it was founded in the sixties. I’m a proud member of a Sweet Adelines chorus. There are many regions all over the world in both organizations.

Each region has an annual competition (separate for BHS and SA; in fact, we don’t really interact much at all… I’ll get to that). Both quartets and choruses compete in the competition, and the first place chorus and quartet go to the international competition the following year. In between competitions, most choruses put on their own show, usually complete with skits, spoof-y songs, and the like. These chorus shows also feature quartets that have members in the chorus, or quartets in the area, and that includes men’s quartets, and even men’s choruses, sometimes. So that’s when we get to interact with each other. And we can and do go to the other org’s competitions, too.

So anyway, the BHS just had their International Competition in Nashville, TN, which is their new international headquarters, as well. My favorite men’s quartet, OC Times, competed there this year and WON, and of course all of us fans are completely stoked. They’ve gotten fifth place before, and second, but this time they’ve really done it.

I don’t think their performance is on YouTube yet, but this is my favorite song that they do. It was originally done by John Michael Montgomery, and it’s a very popular country song. It just proves that barbershop is as versatile as you can get.

The only bad thing about a quartet winning an international competition is that they can’t compete again with the same four members – at least one has to be switched out. And when you’ve found the perfect dynamic in a quartet, the last thing you want to do is replace someone.

My favorite women’s quartet is called Salt, and they’re all Swedish (which is my heritage). They won the 2007 Sweet Adelines International Competition in Las Vegas, which I was actually there for, and it was SO incredible.

I started singing barbershop when I was 14, which makes me a “barbershop brat”… can you tell? I’m obsessed with this art form. I love that it’s a cappella, and that there is just so much involved, and that anyone can become a member, and everyone can find something to love about it, and all the kinds of songs that can be arranged… I love it all. There are many technicalities that I could explain, like the different voice parts, ringing chords, key changes, the excellent groups, the fun workshops, the sisterhood… it just goes on and on.

I ♥ A Cappella Barbershop Singing!!!

I’m Sold to OC Times