Thursday, July 24, 2008

Third Assistant Temporary Vice Chairman

Among the highlights of my barbershop year has again come and gone. (And I can't wait for next year!) Our annual Harmony College West, a weekend "HEP" school sponsored by the Far Western District of the Barbershop Harmony Society. For one weekend a year, several quartets and individual singers gather on the campus of a college for two days of intensive training, coaching and the best aspect of barbershop; fellowship. Our College is a District version of Harmony University presented by the Society. Shorter, more localized and more affordable. Of course the trade off is a shorter curriculum and less training, but we always seem to have a blast, and our students always seem to love the experience.

This year we returned to the beautiful campus of the University of Redlands, always a treat. Great facilities, clean comfortable environment and a support staff that really looks out for the guests. Redlands markets itself as a conference center as well as a university, so they have plenty of experience hosting groups. We shared the campus this year with a drum and bugle corps and a group of British Soccer coaches. Often we get to do some impromptu entertaining in the cafeteria for our fellow groups, always pleasing those around us! (That's Jim Crowley, Jerry Fairchild, Todd Kohlberg and Steve Shannon singing a tag in the cafeteria!) One year, we shared with an African chorus who was rehearsing for an American tour. What fun it was to sing a song for them, and they would sing one back for us. The music filled the air that weekend!

During the weekend, I proudly sport a name tag with the title Third Assistant Temporary Vice Chairman. It gets as many quizzical looks as it gets knowing laughs, but it is my official title for Harmony College West. Officially, I am categorized as "Administration" but it is understood among the HCW folks and much of the leadership of the Far Western District that the above is my title. It was duly blessed by Dean Jerry Fairchild after I dubbed myself as a joke. "Keep it" he said, "keep that bit of humor in the Society". Third Assistant Temporary Vice Chairman was the title assumed by the co- founder of the Barbershop Harmony Society, O.C. Cash, and I guess I carry the tradition....

Harmony College West has become a part of me by now. Each year I eagerly anticipate its coming, work like a dog during, and am completely beat by the end of the weekend! But worth all the work, especially to get the memories.

In 2001 I was awarded tuition to attend my first HCW. It was my first "barbershop weekend", only having been a member of the Society and my chapter for a few months. I couldn't believe what I saw when I got there. Top quartets and coaches investing time with "Joe Barbershoppers", the line between medalled performer and rank amateur seemingly broken in favor of the "Encouragement" part of our Society's official name. I got to know then-Dean Jim Crowley who asked if I wanted to "work for him next year". I was naive enough to agree, but with absolutely no regrets. This has been a terrific run for me, and as long as I can serve the district in this capacity, I hope to do so!

The job for me seems to both increase in scope, yet gets easier the more I learn.

Starting in 2002 I hosted the 1990 Gold Medalists ACOUSTIX, and had no idea just what I was doing. I just did my best to make these guys welcome at a college campus I barely knew. I guess whatever I did was acceptable, as I was asked back, given more responsibility and the promise of better resources to host our quartets.

Since then, I have hosted Gotcha!, Nightlife, Four Voices, The Most Happy Fellows, Happiness Emporium, Powerplay and this year I had the honor of looking after Realtime. Each weekend brings its own adventures. A late night run to a pharmacy to find a voice healing medication, multiple Starbucks runs, finding an iron at the last minute, and perhaps the wildest trip through a MacDonald’s drive-through ever, featuring the boys from Nightlife and Gotcha. Apparently that story is still told throughout the AIC!

But for all the humor in that story, I guess the word has also gotten around the AIC that Harmony College West is a very good place to bid a quartet’s commitment. We do our best to make that weekend away from home and family a good one. We make sure everyone gets in from the airport in a timely manner, make sure their accommodations are as good as a college dorm can be, and make sure our Saturday show is befitting that of the rarified air of an International Champion. I guess we do okay.

The 2008 version of Harmony College West was as good, if even better than in the past. Along with quartet coaching from some of the best in the business, we had terrific individual classes in sight-reading, arranging, comedy, chapter building, and voice production. In addition, this year saw the premier of Small Chorus Coaching. I was able to watch the Santa Monica group raise their bar steeply in the space of a few short hours.

I think the whole weekend might have been summed up in the finale of the Saturday Show. The traditional singing of "Keep the Whole World Singing" was emphasized by the fellowship displayed. I can't wait for next year!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

I knew them when they were nuthin'!

One of my great blessings of being a barbershopper is the ability to give back to those who have given me so much. And in that giving back, I also get more in return. Talk about perpetual motion!

Over the last several years, I have been honored to serve on the "permanent staff" of Harmony College West, a mini-school held over one weekend per year. In this school, quartets and individual barbershoppers converge on a college campus for coaching, classes, fellowship and a great Saturday night show. The show is headlined by our top coaching quartet, most often an Association of International Champions member. In other words, a quartet who has earned their Gold Medal at the highest level of competition in our hobby.

As (my official title) "Third Assistant Temporary Vice Chairman" of Harmony College West it has been my duty to host these headline quartets. I have rubbed elbows with the best in our Society. My job entails essentially the "care and feeding" of these guys, from the time they land at the local airport to the time they catch their flight back out of town. This involves anything from late night trips to the pharmacy for throat medication, to multiple Starbucks or McDonald's runs, to perhaps a run to the local "imbibables" seller to downright bawdy laughing trips through the local fast food drive-through! So far in my barbershop career, I have earned no significant contest hardware, so my "barbershop wall" is adorned with my one requirement from working with these great quartets. A picture of them with me. (I think I will make that a subject of a later essay.)

So I have worked with the best quartets after they have won Gold. At last night's Barbershop Harmony Society Quartet Finals, watching OC Times win Gold, I realized that I had also worked with a quartet before they won Gold. Heck, I had -- for all intents and purposes -- know these guys before OC Times came to be.

I had tears in my eyes as Cory Hunt spoke for the quartet, accepting the trophy and the honor that no one will ever be able to take away from him and his mates. I chuckled to myself, thinking about how long I had known the "punk kid"... and realized these boys had been around much of my barbershop life. And I was able to watch them ascend, not just meet them after they got to the top. Like all their fans, I could feel as if I had even a small part of it, even if it was simply clapping in the audience for a show or contest set.

Yeah, the tears really began to flow as I thought of my history with these guys. Not their closest associate, often on the periphery, but acknowledged as "there". Never more so than at HCW 2006 where they were second billed quartet. My duties were primarily for our headliners, but I tried to make OCT's stay and show a good one too. They gave me a copy of their first CD and refused payment from me. After an attempted argument over what I did to deserve the disk -- I hadn't done much in the way of hosting duties -- they said "You were there for us." Wow, thanks!

And that may have also meant the months and years prior. As I thought of it, there is a history. A fine one in the way of barbershoppers. I can't claim a great friendship with the outside parts, but a consistent acknowledgement each time we see each other. Maybe it was the time in 2001 that I asked Pat if he was related to Les Claypool of Primus. "I wish" was the response with a big grin. Or it might have been asking Shawn if he know of a friend from his very tiny hometown of Rescue, CA. "Of course I know him, it's Rescue!"

But Sean and Cory.... another story all together. I first saw Mr. Devine with Sam's Club and still wonder why he left between their winning Far Western District and that year's International appearance. I am sure there is a story that should remain untold, but it didn't surprise me when the first lineup of OC Times appeared. Despite the often aloof stage persona of Sean, I never fail to get a genuine fraternal hug from the man along with a warm desire to see how I am doing. Maybe it is just the presence around, maybe it is my constant vocal support of Westminster Chorus and my oft stated implications for our Society's healthy "youth movement". Or maybe it was the time, during a mass vocal warmup under the direction of Rick Spencer, me standing between Sean and Alan Gordon and I started mocking Sean's very wide vowel shaping and tendency to squint and close his eyes..... only to have Alan physically reshape my mouth and eyes in front of Sean himself. (And that last might only be fully appreciated by a barbershopper!)

Whatever it is, Sean and I swap e-mail notes from time to time, and have many opportunities to laugh when we actually see each other.

I can't claim to have been there when Revival put Cory in one of their stage jackets, but I learned of him not long after. I think it was in 2001 singing with Paul Olguin, Bill Wieser and Mike Stewart as "Quydamix" out of Reno. Who is this kid singing tenor? A half a year later, in Visalia, at 2:00 AM after Divisional contest a screaming tag fest broke out with this kid Cory as the ringleader! Being right in the courtyard of the hotel, we could either beat em or join em. So a few of us did the latter.

We crossed paths a few times, and I felt a warm honor one day in Lodi, CA, when Cory sat in with "Whirlwind" on bass for the day. (This was about the same time he had begun singing baritone with "Q") He smiled and waved my way from the stage; if figured his aim was at one of his real friends. "No", he said later, "I was waving at you!". Wow! A simple yet very impactful honor.

As "Q" gained momentum, and an eventual FWD victory, I got to know Cory and the "Q" team a bit better. These guys had become friends. (Pictured is my failed attempt at a coup for their lead position!)

The nature of our hobby is that quartets come and go, the ones that have that extra "something" eventually rise to the top. When "Q" separated from their lead, Robert Lenoil, that quartet was put on hold, hoping to regroup. But the opportunity for Cory to join up with OC Times -- when their original bass went back to school -- must have been irresistible, he understandably took it.

And what a ride it has been! 2006 Saw these young men take the International Third Place Bronze Medal, followed by a 2007 Silver, and this year.... the Big One, the Gold, the ultimate Barbershop Harmony Prize. Rare air indeed.

In the week or so between the time I started this Note and now finishing, I have been swapping more e-mail notes with Sean, arranging his arrival as staff for this year's Harmony College West. I know I will get a hug and a laugh and perhaps raise a glass and sing a tag with this guy. And personally congratulate him not only for his new medal, but his recent hiring as part of the paid staff of the Society! What a boon for both he and our Society!

But Gold or not, he is still a barbershopper. And when I see Sean, Cory, Pat or Shawn, they are fellow members of the greatest Society a man could ever join!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Four Voices

The closing song of each rehearsal, meeting, convention we do as barbershoppers is "Keep the Whole World Singing". There is little more inspiring, at the end of a contest, to hear several hundred voices singing that song en masse. Puts goose bumps on the arm! Some chapters in the Society add "It's great to be a barbershopper!" at the end of the song. Our chapter/chorus does, and it is not only a proclamation, it is the true feeling of being in this wonderful singing fraternity.

Since returning from my hiatus at the beginning of the year, I have been reminded of just how great that is. Every rehearsal, every event, anything to do with barbershopping is simply... great.

In my nearly eight years in the "hobby", I have sung in pickup quartets, Novice quartets, workshop quartets, etc., but have not been a member of a performing quartet. A group that sings "gigs" for general public consumption. Sure, some of the other foursomes do songs in front of the public, but on a limited basis, and mostly for insiders.

Last summer, two members of His Story IV, (shown here in an earlier PR photo, with the original bass.) suggested that they might want to try me out at bass. The roots of this quartet go twenty years, three of the guys singing together for that long a time. Their original bass left town, only to return and join a new quartet. The remaining three tried a few guys, but the blend just was not to their satisfaction. A half a year later, Bob and Perry made good on the original offer, asking if I might want to sing with them for the annual "Valengrams" singing Valentine program. Like literally hundreds of quartets throughout the nation, we deliver singing Valentines to the objects of the purchaser's affection. Always a fun day, and probably the Barbershop Harmony Society's biggest single day.

So we got ourselves together, went over the two primary Valentine's songs, a few others, and went out for a day of fun. And boy did we have some fun and great stories to tell. I pretty much figured that might all I would have to do with "HSIV", until they asked if I would sing with them for a requested eightieth birthday party.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we had some rehearsals, established a set and off we went to entertain for a party of about 40 people, in a local chain restaurant. My words on this web log will only begin to express the pure thrill I had in that restaurant's private banquet room that day. There is always the risk that you go on stage and flop. That despite all practice, rehearsal, performance planning etc., the audience just won't like you. Blessedly, that was not the case at all. These folks were excited about what we were going to do, and they showed it. And we did not disappoint either! From the opening "Hello" bell chord (taken from the intro to Coney Island Baby) to the final "May God hold you in the palm of His hand" from The Irish Blessing, the group seemed to enjoy every moment.

This was in no small part due to someone I realized might be the most consummate showman I have ever seen, or at least worked with. Tenor Bob Greenhalgh, our "MC" can read an audience like no one can. He can play off each individual AND each quartet member. Nothing scripted save for the set list, our "intro to barbershop" routine, and the swearing in to the "Honorary Wild Irish Rose Society". Everything else was pure improvisational comedy. Bob let every quartet member play into his stuff, even turning a real blunder of forgetting my solo part into an hilarious event that seemed part of the show itself!

With our closing song, we could not get away. In, what I understand to be the first requested encore, we stayed for one more song, a parody of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" that described the comedy that is aging. The party had a professional photographer shooting, so I am hoping he will send along a few shots of the quartet. (update.... here are two!)

As Bob presented us the new printing of business cards, my name was on it. Well, I guess I am in a quartet now. And thrilled to be a part of it. I guess I will have to behave!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A triumphant return?

As I mentioned in The Young Curmudgeon, I had set up this web log three years ago, I guess to get access to the blog for 4-Cast, the podcast devoted to barbershop harmony. If you are interested in this great music style and like the back-story -- interviews, etc. -- 4-Cast is terrific. (link)
The thing started several years ago by two good friends, Alan LeVezu and Eric Brickson, guys I have pretty much known since I started in this hobby. Their one-time quartet TopCats was among the first quartets I heard and helped me to get involved in this thing. They were a blast to hang out with, listen to, and get accepted into the wonderful humor that we share as barbershoppers. Like so many quartets, they ran their course and disbanded. Erik and Alan popped up again in Playback and Checkmate, respectively. The 4-Cast is a big project that spanned the entire barbershop community. They recorded the history of our hobby as it happened, and continue to on a limited basis.

It is said the being a barbershopper is more than a mere hobby, it is a lifestyle. It is not just being in a chorus or quartet to sing four part harmony, but it is an extended family. It is putting away all differences in socio-economic caste, race, creed, color, etc. and all focusing on making music that is fully dependent on all members -- four to forty to one hundred and forty -- singing as one. No instruments to "hide" behind, just the four vocal parts that have to be in sync in every way to produce a synergy going beyond the sound of the four parts. The "extended sound", the locking and ringing of a chord that becomes almost addictive when the singer is in that zone. And knowing that you can only attain that "nirvana" by encouraging those around you to sing as well as you and in complete compatibility.

It is something I had to sit on the sidelines for the latter part of 2007. Missing the pure joy of the music, and the pure joy of these thirty-odd gentlemen I share my Tuesday evenings with, was a thrill to return to. So much, that when the first contest came up, the "Novice", hosted by our chapter, I banded together with three other terrific singers and we entered the thing! Two of the gents, Howard and Greg, have had years of experience behind them, Steve, a few more years than I and under some pretty high quality training, and me.... who was honored these guys would sing with me! For a quartet that was formed "on the fly", with probably less than 2 hours total rehearsal time, only to get third in the contest was a blast! And as much a testament to the leadership of our chorus as anything. That our chorus director spends as much time on vocal craft as he does the songs themselves, allowed for four guys to spend our limited rehearsal time on refinement of our two songs, and virtually no time on the fundamentals. We were already past that point.

Also for me, it was a bit of redemption. Three years prior, I had competed with three friends, with dreams of glory. Hard work, dedication, and thinking we were terrific somehow didn't translate on stage and we came in a disappointing ninth place. I was devastated! Didn't want to sing for a while. And it took me a few months to feel good about singing. So this current Novice contest was a chance for me to go out, have some fun, and feel good about the judging panel again. Amazing what it is to have that mental block wiped away. (Here is the score sheet for the day)

Getting toward work time and I will expand on this next chance I get...