It’s also my hobby…and the hobby of tens of thousands of other people all over the world. You think I’m kidding, but I can put my music where my mouth is.
I won’t go into a detailed history, but let’s see if I can sum it up. The men’s organization, Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS), was originally formed in 1938 (as SPEBSQSA). In 1945, the women’s organization was formed: Sweet Adelines International (SAI). The purpose of both of these organizations is to preserve and promote the singing of barbershop music. To give you numbers folks something to think about, approximately 23,000 SAI members can be found in 15 different countries including Japan, New Zealand, Scotland, Australia, and Sweden.
The men’s and women’s organization each have an annual international competition where the best choruses and quartets in the world come to sing, learn, and have fun. Although BHS and SAI have slightly different competition structures, the basics are the same. A quartet or chorus needs to win in their district or region in order to qualify for international. Then they travel to that year’s international competition location (generally in the US), and sing their hearts out to try and bring home the gold.
This “hobby” is more like a lifestyle. We are constantly educating ourselves about music, vocal production, and choreography techniques. There are people so famous in these organizations that you could drop their name to any barbershopper around the world, and they would know exactly who you’re talking about. However, mention that name to your friend at the office…blank stare. It’s a funny little universe we have, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I think I’ve ruined myself for any other “choir” experiences in the future.
If you would like a really interesting and witty walkthrough of the quartet competition process, I highly recommend renting American Harmony. It’s a brilliant documentary that showcases the hard work, amazing music, and camaraderie of barbershop. If you happen to know me personally, I own it (of course). You’re welcome to borrow it.
I stumbled into this crazy, passionate world of singing right after college. I decided my life was too boring without being involved in a choir. So I googled choirs near my hometown, and found two possibilities: the local city’s chamber singers, and something called the Harborlites Chorus. I decided to visit each one and weigh my options before choosing, and the Harborlites rehearsal happened to come around first. I showed up to find 120+ women in a room with no piano, keyboard, or anything else I was accustomed to seeing at a rehearsal. They had risers to stand on and a director to guide them. Someone blew a pitch pipe, and the most glorious sound I had ever heard just…erupted out of the women standing before me. I was still feeling a little overwhelmed when I heard the director say “This is about emotion. If you’re not here to move people with your music, what are you doing here?”
I had found my people…and I still have no idea what the city’s chamber singers sound like. I’m sure they’re wonderful.