Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Into the barbershop universe

One thing that surprised me upon getting involved with the Vocal Majority is the subculture of barbershoppers – tens of thousands of fans of this interesting musical style who join from all corners of the world to meet and compete.

It’s like they have their own little world within the larger world. Some guys (in the Barbershop Harmony Society; the ladies have Sweet Adelines) gather to sing in quartets and choruses purely for the social aspect, some to put on shows, some just for the joy of singing. Other groups, like the Vocal Majority, have all of those factors but also work to be the very best and put it all on the line in competitions against other choruses.

The BHS has over 30,000 members worldwide, and a fair percentage of them gather every year at the international convention, which includes the competition for quartets and contests – what a current documentary calls “The Biggest Singing Competition You’ve Never Heard Of.” The convention also has quite a bit of camaraderie and fellowship. The Society truly is a brotherhood, and the hotel lobbies and even street corners are filled with music. Complete strangers spontaneously group themselves into quartets and sing “tags” together, the “big endings” of familiar songs. It is a visual and aural treat.

We’re about to submerge ourselves into this barbershop subculture in a big way. We have to check in at the convention headquarters, held in the Hilton Anaheim next door.

We step out into the parking lot and start walking down it until we can find a place to cross the street over to the Hilton. After only a few steps I find myself laughing – I see that the Vocal Majority truck, emblazoned with our logo, full-color pictures of the chorus, and our adopted description “America’s Premier Pops Chorus” in large letters, is parked in the lot in plain view of barbershoppers arriving at the Hilton. We’re making our presence known already.

I gather our family together by the truck for a group picture. I’m taking the picture, but I also manage to be in it, since my photo is already on the side of the truck!

I have to admit a bit of ego-driven anticipation to joining the convention. The Vocal Majority, as the winningest chorus of all-time, is well-known and very respected in these circles, and at these conventions I come as close as I ever will to being treated like, well, a rock star. I first noticed it in Denver two years ago, at my first convention. Even before I’d ever sung a note in public with the group, the fact that I was wearing a VM nametag alone was enough to get me all sorts of attention, questions, and compliments for the group. It was fun, in a very self-centered way.

We find the entrance to the Hilton and step into the lobby. A bright Barbershop Harmony Society logo is projected onto the lobby floor, and already we can hear tight, four-part harmony around us from various pick-up quartets singing tags. I smile at my family’s reactions – for all but my dad and Becky’s dad (who came with me to Denver in 2007), this is a new experience – and they all marvel at the music floating around us.

In this environment, you can’t help but smile.

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