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A Taste of Barbershop

There is an indefinite amount of words to define barbershop, but I can’t seem to put them together.

I mean, I could. It just might be a little confusing if I did.

There are definitions and examples I could use, but those words have fallen flat in my past explanations. I’m not the only one who has this problem and I even wrote out an entire post describing and defining barbershop in a nutshell. But today, as I eat my lunch rereading what I wrote, I realize that I haven’t done the barbershop world justice. I could list and define all I want, but it wouldn’t make sense because it’s more than a definition. It’s something that is experienced in its entirety over time – it changes and builds.

So rather than trying to put barbershop into a neat little box I’m going to give you the bare bones. Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…

No. The Sound of Music is not barbershop. It does have fantastic music though!

Picture four women standing in a semicircle. They’re close to each other so they can hear each other as they sing. They have to be able to see each other too so they can stay together as they flow through their musical story line. There aren’t any musical instruments waiting in the wings – just the small pitch pipe which one of the women uses to set the musical range/key they wish to sing in. A single note hangs in the air before it’s placed back into a pocket.

Once the pitch is heard and gone, one of the women takes a visible breath by minimally moving her head up and then down. The other women breathe with her, expanding their diaphragms in preparation.  Almost like magic, the women all start to sing at once but at different ranges. There’s a low voice that might keep time, and a high clear voice singing notes that float above. There’s the melody, strong and true. You can’t really hear what the fourth woman is doing until suddenly a strong, ringing chord catches your ear, and you realize that that fourth women is sewing the harmony of all four parts together.

You realize as they continue to sing that you hardly ever see or hear a breath being taken. The breaths that can be visibly seen are used for phrasing. Other breaths, if caught, are covered by another part.  So much so, that all you hear is a constant ringing tone. You can’t be sure you caught them breathing at all.

They move together as one, adding small moves here and there to embellish the story of their song. Each face expresses the message entreating you to understand; to empathize, to relate to their journey.

Slowly they weave the story as the melody switches from person to person – each woman allowing the melody to dominate until it’s passed to them. This continued wall of sound rings with every chord, drawing all the attention to this moment. It’s hard to concentrate on anything else.

The music builds and the ladies reach the climax of their story line. The woman who mainly kept the melody throughout bursts in, alone, to sing her final note filling the space. The remainder of the women re-enter and continue to build this final phrase by making their last statements before joining her in a final chord. That first note never wavers as they all as one hold the final chord for what seems to be forever before releasing the music into the atmosphere.

This is barbershop. That feeling of elation just to sing and sing with parts that are both independent and joined together in harmony. It’s the kind of music that sends chills down your spine and spreads goosebumps across your skin.

From a glance, barbershop can look or sound like any type of singing group. Just looking at the sheet music can make you question if it’s just choir music or barbershop. That’s what makes describing or defining barbershop to those who have never heard it before difficult.

The performance of barbershop is what sets this a capella niche apart from others.

First: a capella. You might have heard this term recently. It’s been trending for the last few years from Youtube (Pentatonix) to the Silver Screen (Pitch Perfect). A capella, the art of singing without additional musical instruments, is difficult just with two people let alone four. Each person who sings within a group like this has to be perfectly in tune both vocally and physically with each other or a song can quickly unravel.

Barbershop takes a capella singing one step further. It’s not enough to sing the notes or know the words, but to emote them too. That means breathing as if you were speaking the musical line. This can be incredibly difficult and has given the barbershop world a well used phrase – “There’s no breathing in barbershop.” There’s little music that can produce the tonal ringing like a barbershop song. Each chord combined with continuous sound creates a blend of musical notes that hangs in the air. It doesn’t matter if you are singing or sitting in the audience – the music grabs your attention and draws you in.

If that wasn’t enough, barbershop requires not only the musical talent of performing the songs, but the theatrical one as well. Adding small gestures or large pieces of choreographed moves can further develop the storyline leaving the interpretation open and unique to the performers. It doesn’t hurt to further emphasize your message by adding loud, glittering costumes and bold stage makeup.

It wasn’t always this way. Barbershop had humble beginnings in barbershops and traditionally was only sung by men. If you’ve ever seen The Music Man, the Buffalo Bills are the most recognizable barbershop quartet. As barbershop evolved, women created their own societies and compete regionally and internationally through quartets as well as choruses. – Buffalo Bills Sincere, The Music Man  

A chorus can be as a little as 18 women to over a hundred women who all sing the harmonic lines of barbershop. My chorus, The Choral-Aires, is a relatively large chorus which could intimidate many newcomers.  Others, like myself, see it as a opportunity to become a fish within a sea of women.

There are so many moving parts to this fascinating world – some I have yet to try myself. The core of barbershop, however, remains within the chorus itself.  Each chorus is unique with its performance and interpretation of barbershop. There are choruses large and small ones that are driven to compete and win. Others are more concentrated on a community outreach and social aspect. 


Published by sjungblut

A woman in the workforce by day, a singer by night, an artist in between it all.

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