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Barbershop Bootcamp

There are many things in life that can make your day – A surprise gift, finding money in your pocket, someone saying that you look nice today, or praise for a job well done. One of my favorite small joys is finding a new version of a song. Black Violin’s, “Bradenburg” modern twist of classical piece with Hip-Hop or a punk rock version of “Little Lion Man” that I head bang to at stoplights were unexpected gems I found that have stayed with me through the years.

More often than not, these inspiration driven reprises of original pieces can be a bit eccentric, but it also shows how music can be interpreted and re-engineered to what the artist relates to the most. It could literally just be a specific rhythm that keeps us coming back for more or a phrase that’s so emotionally in tune with where you are right now.

But we move on. Our tastes change and the songs we once listened to no longer hold their sway. Some age well over time and remain relevant or sentimental. I still burst randomly into renditions of “If I Had a Hammer” no matter where I am…usually scaring people.

Listening to music compared to performing it is, however, a completely different animal. Performing a piece of music repeatedly on a regular basis evokes a completely different side of our music enjoyment and different rules of longevity.

A piece of music that is practiced and then performed has a finite lifespan. Learning a piece from the ground up is enchanting; embracing the storyline and understanding the mechanics and layering of a piece becomes an analytical process. But after a while it can become redundant to our ears. The song starts to lose its energy or the same mistakes are made repeatedly before dislike starts to set in. The mere mention of performing Pachelbel’s Canon in D will make anyone who has performed it groan, (particularly bass clef performers).

In the barbershop world, choruses and quartets can and will sing the same pieces of music for years and for good reason.

A song that is well received and performs like a dream on a chorus is worth keeping in the repertoire. We only compete once a year with the potential to compete at the International Competitions and rehearsals are only once a week. With the limited time and learning pace of a chorus a song that sings naturally is worth its weight in gold. The trick is to keep the song fresh to both chorus and the audiences.

Luckily, barbershop is all about interpretation. There are certain things about a song that you cannot change like the substance or overall tone, but everything else is up for grabs and honestly essential to keeping a song alive and unique to the performer. There have been competitions I’ve attended where the same song was sung multiple times by different choruses, but they each had their own little spin and personality thrown in to make it distinctive.

The interpretations are provided by the director(s) of the chorus. From the very beginning, a song chosen is learned with the inflections and emotional story that the director(s) wishes to produce. This can be further influenced by the general direction the chorus seems to take when working through a particular passage. It’s the beginning of that song’s life within a chorus. Over time, the song matures and like any project ever worked on requires constructive critique and improvements. It’s extremely vexing to perform a song year after year and receive the same or even lower score because there wasn’t any improvement made.

That’s where coaching comes in.

Though Monday nights are set as regular rehearsals, every so often the Choral-Aires will congregate for a coaching session. Planned months, often years in advance, our chorus will reserve a weekend with a coach/director from another chorus to assess and make recommendations to our current pieces. It’s the equivalent of a seminar and can breathe new life into a song.

You’d think that this wouldn’t be a good idea – I mean this other person is competition – but it’s incredibly useful and eye opening.

First, finding a coach/director that works well with your chorus is crucial. Every coach/director brings something different to the table, but it isn’t worth the time to either the chorus or that director if the learning process isn’t on the same level. Some coaches are specifically brought in for their expertise in vocal precision while others focus on the mechanics of the song. If there’s a particular skill that the director(s) wants to address, they’ll invite a coach to come and critique the current musical collection.

There’s a high likelihood that the coach brought in is from a different state or even a different country so time is of the essence. Cramming three weeks worth of rehearsals into two days becomes a marathon of stamina and absorbing as much information as possible.

It starts with Friday night. Like any rehearsal, we begin with vocal exercises. I particularly love this part of the rehearsal with a coach because they always have new exercises to try out on us. It’s the beginning of the learning experience as we converse with the coach through scales and vowel pronunciation. You get a feel for their teaching process, their expectations and their personality. There have been rehearsals in which an entire hour is devoted strictly to different exercises and I love it. It’s my time as a singer to focus solely on my vocal dexterity and technique.

Soon, we show our wares: running through our sets, what we’re working on and specific spots we’ve been mucking up.

And then we’re off. Bringing their own special brand of directing, our visiting coach will literally break down each and every piece we present to its bare bones and rebuild or elaborate the current musical plan. Turns of phrases that once haunted our regular rehearsals are transformed into poignant moments or drive the song into a frenzy. Choreography starts to connect with the music and embellishes the theatricality. It’s always a joy to watch how a song that might have been problematic or start to lose its energy rebloom and dazzle us.

It can be frustrating at first. There’s so much information being thrown around that it can be hard to remember every change. One minute the focus is on breathing correctly and the next lyrics are rewritten. There’s also a lot of starting and stopping. It’s rare to sing through an entire phrase without stopping to make minute changes. Soon, though, all the pieces start to align and the chorus starts to feed off the energy and sound its producing.

After a three hour rehearsal on Friday, we head home with crossed eyes and numb brains. We’re totally awake at this point, but unable to think about anything but barbershop.

We don’t have to wait long to get back at it. By 8:30 the next morning, we’re back on the risers ready for a full day of more. We’ll revisit the previous night’s notes and changes before hammering into our music working out the kinks. A lot of changes are simple tune-ups: making sure that the chords are in tune or sung in the correct vocal space, (more on that later). There are moments where the visiting coach will just say, “Talk amongst yourselves,” discuss with our directors and then completely change the phrase through wording, dynamics or even chords. We’re begging for lunch by noon just to prevent overheating in our brains from all the work. At one o’clock, we’re back at it again.

Hours turn to minutes and suddenly it’s late Saturday afternoon and the coaching comes to an end. The focus of achieving whatever was possible within that short amount of time is brought to a close. The last half hour is spent rehashing what was changed and comments from our visiting coach. Last minute notes; the take-aways.

Not all sessions have positive outcomes. A song that might have been problematic at the beginning can be completely scrapped by the end of a session. Changes that were positive during the session suddenly becoming confusing or impossible to reproduce in later rehearsals. The rapport between the visiting coach and chorus could be indifferent leading the entire session to a dead end. That’s the risk of bringing in outside advise.

In the end it’s still worth every minute. This practice of coaching between choruses within Sweet Adelines keeps our ties positive and encouraging while also spreading out perspectives and experiences. Sharing the knowledge and techniques used by other choruses promotes healthy competition and ensures progress and higher learning. It’s the chance for directors to swap notes and learn from each other. It’s the chance to learn something new about ourselves and what we should focus on and if anything, reignite the passion and competitive spirit within the chorus.

It’s also about preserving the song. Making small changes in dynamics or breathing can revitalize a song ensuring that it continues to improve and wow the crowds.

I also consider this process to be crucial to the survival of barbershop. Not only is the knowledge spread and experiences shared, but the music is still able to attract new voices and hopefully new compositions too. Barbershop composition isn’t as popular as it once was making new tunes scarce. This is the inevitability of any genre of art. It either adapts over time or it slowly becomes fixed within the past. Through coaching, barbershop keeps adapting and improving as we come to learn what it means to be a singer. A simple change shows us daily how something that may have been performed hundreds of times before can still hold surprises that keep you asking for more. Creativity, reinterpretation and a love for barbershop keeps our society alive and thriving and will continue to do so as we strive for that perfect performance.

A big THANK YOU to the wonderful Betty Clipman who came to coach us this past month and who is our featured coach in the photos above!

Want to sing with the Choral-Aires?

Go to our website at for more information!


Published by sjungblut

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

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