For the past five years I have sung in the barbershop chorus, Sounds of the Seacoast (S.O.S). This chorus is my family away from home. I have been to their weddings, their Thanksgivings, their children’s weddings, and graduations. They have fed me when Grad School gets too much, housed me when needed, they’ve helped me up and down stairs after injuries and surgeries, and supported me through family deaths and illness. Last year my Mum had a serious accident, and my chorus members asked for her address so that they could send cards. These are the kinds of women I have been blessed to find.
Not only are they fabulous women, we are pretty amazing singers too. I’ve sung in choirs since Junior School, and wanted to continue in Grad School. In fact, it was something my Mum encouraged from the beginning of my American journey: the card she left in my luggage asked me to do her a favor and start singing again. After a few months in New Hampshire, I found Sounds. The director and a couple of members were at a local community day, and as soon as I met them I knew this was the choir for me. Then after watching rehearsals and passing my audition I was in.
Barbershop is one of only two authentic American musical forms, the other being jazz. The music is in 4 parts: Tenor is the highest, Lead is usually the melody line, Bass is the lowest, and the Baritone meanders doing the important work of providing the notes to complete each chord. Barbershop is sung a cappella, with only a single note blown on a pitch pipe to provide the initial tuning.
For a song to be considered barbershop, not only must there be 4-part a cappella harmony, but the chords in the song must progress in a certain order. The genre makes heavy use of the Dominant Seventh chord, so much so that it is often referred to as the Barbershop Seventh as it gives barbershop its distinctive sound. Another unique feature is the way the music progresses around the circle of fifths. I guess you could see this chord progression as the skeleton of barbershop melody. We do sing some a cappella songs that do not follow this structure, however, we cannot use them to compete at contests. A final feature of barbershop is that when certain chords are sung together in perfect pitch with everyone singing exactly the same vowel sound, the chord “rings.” This means that a fifth note can also be heard, even though no one is actually singing that note. It’s pretty impressive!
Sounds of the Seacoast is a member of the women’s barbershop organization Harmony Inc., and we compete every year with other Harmony members. In April we have our regional competition, which includes choruses from New England and Canada. Then if you qualify you go on to internationals in November. For the past five years, we have won first place in our area. The highest we have won at internationals is second place, however this year we are ranked number one going into our international competition in Louisville. So keep everything crossed for November.
Female barbershoppers could give professional figure skaters a run for their money with their sequins, bedazzlements, and bronze-hued foundation. I love opportunities in life when you get to enter into a world you previously knew nothing about. Barbershop is another world, and I have fully immersed myself in it. I have worn sequined costumes Nancy Reagan would be proud of, I have applied lipstick shades my normal self would never even consider, and I have mastered my jazz hands and killer-watt smile like a pro. My boyfriend calls me Barbershop Barbie.
The friendships in my chorus are supported by a strong mutual desire to be the best barbershop singers we can be. A couple of weeks ago we had our annual coaching retreat in New Hampshire. In an 80-something degree hall with no AC and a few sparse ceiling fans we sang all day. We sang while marching, and while clicking our fingers, we sang as a whole ensemble, and as smaller groups, we sang in individual parts, and in duets. The focus of the day’s coaching was on breathing. We have improved so much in recent years that we need to concentrate on the mechanics of singing now that we have (generally) mastered singing in tune. It is quite amazing how a small change like the way you inhale air, or the way you position your tongue can affect your singing. These small changes are really some of the hardest to master; it is much easier to correct a wrong note than it is to train yourself to breathe in a different way.
The focus of our afternoon activities was on rhythm. One of the songs we are taking to contest is a medley of Gershwin songs, including I’ve Got Rhythm, and Fascinating Rhythm. Our presentation involves the difficult task of singing and dancing in two different rhythms. It is the extreme sports version of that exercise where you rub your stomach and pat your head in different directions. In the remaining weeks before contest we all need to do a lot of singing while listening to a metronome, or clicking fingers until the rhythm is fully embedded in our bones. Then, hopefully, we will be able to dance to another beat as well.
By about 5 o’clock the heat in our hall was approaching 90, I had drunk all the bottles of the water I brought with me, and the emergency stash from the car. After trying running shoes, flip-flops, and then bare feet, I was now walking on tiptoes as the least painful option. But as the Harmony Inc. anthem says “We’re Harmony, We’re Strong!”
As forty-seven weary singers got down from the risers, a delivery man arrived with armloads of pizza. You know that phrase about singing for your supper… Once restored with pizza we looked forward to the evening’s entertainment: a chorus-wide Olympic games with a difference. Among other tasks, we competed for who could blow the biggest bubble of gum, who had the least points on their license, who had the most grandchildren, who could spin a coin the longest, who could make a paper airplane fly the furthest, and who could jump the highest. The jump off came down to me and our director. In a nail-biting final she out-jumped me. The prize for winning these illustrious games? A tub of Play-Doh! This is why I love these women. We can sing all day and then still take a contest over Play-Doh seriously!
As a member of Sounds of The Seacoast I have met some of funniest women I know, and made many of my best friends in America. In one of the cards my Mum received last year, one of my fellow singers wrote “Thank you for loaning us Tess, we love her!” But the truth is, the thanks should come from me. I cannot imagine my life in America without being a member of SOS.