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Looking Back While Looking Forward

My first Sweet Adelines International Competition was in Las Vegas at the MGM in 2015. There’s a lot of memories of that competition that I still use as a comparison to other competitions I’ve attended because it left a big impression on me. There were a lot of firsts in that short week that opened my eyes to what I had gotten myself into when I signed up with Choral-Aires.

Throughout the week I walked into the arena not knowing what to expect. Each time I shuffled through the plastic arena, I searched for familiar faces before settling down and nervously engaging in conversation with friends around me. The arena was always buzzing with women wandering around greeting each other, hugging and laughing together. I watched slideshows on large screens of congratulations or encouragement for quartets and choruses to do their best and sing their hearts out. It all seemed like a regular convention – from my limited experience. 

It wasn’t until further into the week when competitions had started where I started to see actual video clips of Sweet Adeline competitions and performances. At first, it was a simple look into the past with women in dated styles singing barbershop.

Then the costumes got weird.

Many video clips were shown in remembrance and highlighting the careers of women directing or being a part of a quartet or recognized performances of choruses, but what had started as what could be considered “normal” for a newbie, suddenly changed direction by the appearance of choruses dressing up as animals, clowns, fairy tale characters, southern belles and jailbirds. Props of fake fruit, dramatic hats, bicycles, refrigerators, drums, and large cardboard cut-outs raced across the screen accompanied by singing or jokes and exaggerated, wide-eyed facial expressions of the ladies performing their show packages. I sat through it all, bug-eyed, watching these snippets run by as I internally asked myself, “Where was this in my Barbershop Brochure?”

1986 Choral-Aires with Director Mary LaMaster

You have to understand, at this point of my short time in the Barbershop world, I had only seen the costumes that I had been given and any of the others that I had seen at the beginning of the week though glittery and brightly colored were tame, (relatively speaking). To see an entire chorus dressed as Toy Soldiers complete with red circled cheeks to full on cave women was both alarming and dazzling to the eye. I’d also never seen a show package performed on stage – in person or on screen.

Throughout the week of recognition, The Coronet Club Show, reminders of our past I was introduced to the history of Sweet Adelines through these pictures and video/audio clips. I soaked these moments in as I listened to people around me who shouted out names or giggled/groaned at the costumes they remembered wearing. Though these moments were brand new to me, they were glowing memories to others of their past performances or singing techniques or of people they used to know; how judging and singing and competitions had completely changed.

1960s Choral-Aires with Director Arleen Klein

Sweet Adeline International is currently celebrating its 75th year as a beacon to all women who sing and compete in Barbershop Choruses around the world. It was just another event that we were unable to celebrate together beyond our computer screens, but it boasts of a pastime that has grown and changed so many lives. Like any Coronet Club Show or anniversary or convention, we look at our accomplishments by admiring the people who brought us to this point and listen to their voices through memorabilia. We usually only get to see these short snippets of our world at large conventions or events looking back on the highlights, but also from those who lived during the time. And with as many choruses that have been established and currently performing, that’s quite a lot of history to choose from and not a lot of access or time.

It’s hard to remember, especially now, that there was a time where information wasn’t openly available to everyone at the click of a button. Women with boxes full of tapes, CDs, photo albums, newspaper clippings and old paraphernalia sitting in their attics or basements from years past hold the rich history that is Sweet Adelines – and a lot of it has not made it onto the internet.

Our very own Pat Rotunno with her winning quartet Jubilation, 1985
Alice in Wonderland Show Package

As one of the younger generations coming into the Sweet Adelines and in my own chorus, the question of who we are and how we got to where we are today doesn’t come up very often. I mean, we know who we are now and what brought us to barbershop and to chorus so many years ago, but we hardly ever talk about the past on a regular basis. This can be somewhat vexing to someone new especially when names of other Sweet Adelines or past members are thrown around in general conversation like everyone knows each other – especially while learning the names of everyone in your current chorus, (which can take months if not years). But as you continue to come to rehearsal and get to know your singing sisters, you glean stories of shenanigans, triumphs and upheavals of the past barbershop society.

As I absorbed my first international competition, I realized how little I knew about this world of barbershop. Even now, as I write this post, I still only have glimpses of what Choral-Aires was like before I joined.

Choral-Aires singing at Wrigley Field, 1991
Our very own Bonnie Fedyski and Amy Brinkman with their winning quartet Chicago Fire, 1995
Choral-Aires at International Competition with Karen Breidert, 1995

A couple of months ago, I received an email about whether I would help with planning the 60th Anniversary of the Choral-Aires Chorus. With breathtaking speed, hours of attention to detail and the uploading of years of pictures, videos and additional information from members who had them stashed away, I watched as emails flew back and forth over what picture to use or whether we had a video with audio or not. I, who am horrible about responding/sending emails, watched as questions and information flew into my mailbox and were answered or dealt with before I could write two sentences. The hard work poured out by these ladies was evident and I felt useless and full of pride as they swiftly moved forward with plans and ideas spawned in our first few meetings.

My mind, however, always returns to the first conversation about this event I had with the committee leader. Sarah, adept project leader and my go-to when I have a question about Sweet Adelines in general, was picking my brain for ideas: themes, thoughts, action plans. I remember we got to the subject of what we should focus on as we celebrate 60 years of singing barbershop and thinking to myself, “I don’t know about the last 60 years, but I know where we’re going.”

Regional Competition with Director Joan Boutilier, 2000
Choral-Aires singing Valentine’s
Napervillle Concert: Pure Joy

For the last few months, I’ve questioned myself: Why wouldn’t we want to look back? It makes sense to look back because we’re celebrating…the past 60 years right? Isn’t that what anniversaries are all about? 

Sadly, it took me a lot longer to answer my own question than it should have. The answer, in the end, is simple: We don’t look back – We move forward.

When I first joined Choral-Aires there was a lot of information to learn – names, places, music, schedules, choreography, and anything you could possibly want to know about the inner workings of a chorus. The history of the chorus wasn’t high on the priority list compared to the music and choreo you had to learn and what you learned about the past was from watching competitions, learning about your fellow chorus mates and whatever you dug up on your own. Conventions provide more context and people outside of your chorus who had even more stories and history to divulge.

And yet through all this, not once, not in any class or rehearsal or any other barbershop grouping, have I ever been left with the impression of nostalgia of how things used to be.

Since the first day I stepped in Choral-Aires to this very day, I’ve never felt an ounce of nostalgia. There are plenty of moments I can recall as being important, motivating or just fun to remember, but not one of them is a wish that I could go back and do it again and I feel like this is something that has been ingrained into everything we do as a chorus.

Choral-Aires, 2018
Choral-Aires, 2020

I love hearing about the past Choral-Aires and I love looking at pictures and videos of singers who came before me, but that is not the mindset of my chorus. When we mention the past, it’s because we’re using it as an example of how we can or have improved; we’re using our past trials and triumphs as stepping stones to something greater. I look back on the conversations I’ve had with other members or singers and many of them have been focused on what we can do and what we want to see change in the future. We’re excited by the changes that we have seen and motivated to keep moving forward. I’d say this is special to just Choral-Aires, but it’s not. This same mindset is reinforced at every competition and every learning experience. 

If there’s one thing that we do look back on that we don’t use as a tool or use to inspire, I can firmly say that it’s our friends – on this and only this will I concede to nostalgia. It’s the wish of wanting to hear their voice sing with mine one more time.

Earlier this week, I was coming home after a long day of work seeking out my bookroom for a minute of peace. Looking through my bookshelves, I spied the small white envelopes marked with my name peeking out in between two books. Each one is filled with photos from the years I’ve been in Choral-Aires. Julie, one of our resident photographers, photographs our chorus and then prints and hands out photos to each member at the end of the year. I pull out each envelope and line the floor with the photos. I’m in all of them, but so are women that I sing with, admire, miss, have lost, or moved away. Each photo shows a smiling face that has in one way or another changed my life. 

The same could be seen on all the faces of people who joined our 60th celebration this past Monday. We watched performances from the past 60 years reminiscing on the directors and people who sing out to us through the screen and all I could see were women I never got to know, but I still connect with. I glanced at current and past members’ video feed and saw people singing along, pointing out women they knew and shedding tears regarding the past they experienced and women they knew. 

This is not nostalgia – it’s remembrance. As I look through the photos and remember who I was and how I’ve changed for better or worse, the line of a recent song softly plays in my head: It’s the music that brings us together…but it’s the friendships that make us stay.  

We remember our past, remember who came before us and we hear their song and its voices that continue to push us forward; they push us to join in the song. I look forward to the next 60 years knowing that I have my singing sisters of both past and present there to motivate us toward the future of barbershop singing. I’ve already seen so many changes in my short 6 years and I’m sure there’s more to come!


Published by sjungblut

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

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1 Comment

  1. Dear a Sally: you are incomparable in capturing the essence of our chorus and Sweet Adelines. We build and we grow and we rejoice in the memories while reaching into the future. With women like you in SAI, our future is assured.


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