Jonathan Devin 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Tuesday evenings at 7 o’clock is prime time for television sitcoms and crime dramas, or, if you prefer, a quiet dinner with the family. But for about 50 Memphis men, it’s clumping time. “We’re not as clumped up as we need to be!” shouts one man to his fellows as the group arranges itself loosely over a set of semicircled risers. Some men shuffle into other positions, and in a few minutes, clumps of four men are dispersed across the space to everyone’s satisfaction. “Now, who’s got the pitch pipe?” And with that, Memphis Men of Harmony is off and running in one of the last rehearsals before the May concert series at St. Benedict at Auburndale School in Cordova. A starting pitch is blown, and the men take in a deep breath as one, singing “Everyone Come Running — Can’t You See That Showboat Comin’?” in the bright, close chords that make barbershop music a style all its own. The rehearsal takes place where all practices do, at “Harmony Hall,” a 1,200-square-foot bay in the Poplar Plaza Shopping Center, which the group rents at a discounted rate. Large glass windows are filled with trophies anywhere from one to three feet tall. More awards and historic photos surround a sign-in table inside the entryway. Across from the risers, sawhorses, lumber, and a Shop-Vac await continued construction of the set for the group’s upcoming concert — a two-story showboat complete with a winding staircase leading To a wheelhouse. A dock is also being built that will transform into a sandbar halfway through the concert. Showmanship, it seems, is key to barbershopping. “I think it adds another level of entertainment value to our music when we can add a little bit of showmanship, staging, lighting, and sound,” says Jim McLane, a 40-year MMH member who was responsible for creating the set. “Most generally, there’s some dialogue that runs between songs,” he continues. “In this show, when we’re on that showboat, we have people who portray certain dockhands or the captain or the cruise director — just brief lines because all we’re trying to do is carry people through the theme of the show.” But producing excitement doesn’t seem to be much of a problem.As the men sing, they sway and gesticulate at will, adding emphasis with hand motions and controlled leaning into their clumps — the groupings of all four voice parts that make the unique barbershop sound. Because the group is all male, the parts consist of bass, baritone, lead, and tenor, with the lead always singing the melody while the tenor floats above the chord. By standing in clumps rather than separate sections, the barbershoppers get a strong blend of voices across the room. “You try to match vowels primarily,” explains Jim Sams, another Longtime barbershopper. “We try to set up choruses based on voice timbre to get the best ring out of the sound. That has to do with your mix. Once you get into a group of four and ring — we have ringing chords producing overtones — you’re hooked.” Overtones are the ghost-like tones that Ring out over the sung notes, making it sound like a full chorus rather than an allmale chorus. Memphis Men of Harmony was organized in 1947, making it one of the earliest chapters of the Barbershop Harmony Society, an international group that formed in 1938. It makes sense, then, that their music — though sometimes contemporary — at least mimics the style of the turn-of-the-century up until the height of Vaudeville. Membership generally hovers between 30 and 60 men, and barbershopping is usually passed down through families, from father to son or from mother to daughter, as in the Memphis Men’s female counterpart group, the Sweet Adelines. Jim Warner, a non-retired member, notes that at one point, three generations of the same family were singing with the Memphis Men. Though it’s noticeable during rehearsal that many of the singers are retirees, opportunities abound for newcomers, and the guys enjoy nothing more than bringing youths into their art form, mostly through competitions and festivals set up through the Barbershop Harmony Society. “We’re very committed to youths in harmony because we know what’s going to happen if we don’t do it,” says Warner. “We know that we’ve got to at least give them exposure, an opportunity.” “We’ve brought kids from early teens up to 25 to our youth festivals,” adds Sams. “We have youth choruses that come in and sing three songs. We encourage them to use their own imagination, and they blow everybody away with their energy, their ability, their sound. It’s unbelievable. In our midwinter convention, which is society-wide, we had 19 choruses and more than 500 kids.” Apparently this is not just your grandfather’s music. The group works for its own continued education, as well, at times offering public voice workshops, including one this fall with professional voice coaches. All the elements of voice production — breath support, tone, vowels, intonation, and diction — are on the program. The hope is that some of the attendees will hang around after each session and get an introduction to barbershopping. Back in the rehearsal, the chorus breaks into “Banjos Ringing Til the Break of Day” — another showboat-themed song, and it Suddenly becomes noticeable that there’s no piano in the room, nor are any of the singers holding music folders. Warner explains that members receive sheet music and practice tracks at the beginning of each concert cycle. Newbies are asked to return their copies until they’ve been to three or four rehearsals and have made a commitment to sing in a concert. By that time, perhaps as much as a year later, they are on their own, singing from memory and concentrating on their sound. There are also guest quartets to consider.And if possible, the Memphis Men like to Have children’s choruses sing a song or two in the Christmas concerts, as well — anything to add one more layer to the music. Then there are the competitions. “We’ve got a reputation in this chapter for being a stepping stone,” says Warner. “We’ve had quite a number of quartets that came through here before a competition, and they ended up winning the championship.” But is barbershopping like singing opera?Does it take years of specialized training?Sams said that anyone who can carry a tune can barbershop if they’re willing to take the time to practice — and the Memphis Men Are liberal with invitations. When an innocent bystander sitting in on the rehearsal was introduced, someone shouted, “What part does he sing?” "But the thing we always have to keep in mind is that we can get up there and dance and turn backflips, but the first job is always to sing well,” says McLane. “It’s a challenge that the guys step up to.” And when they step up, the music rewards them. McLane says the economic recession of the past three years has reminded him that singing in the same group for decades has become more than just a tradition to be carried on for tradition’s sake. “I got into barbershopping 40 years ago, and it came at a much-needed time in my life when the economy was like it is today,” he says. “I had four children and was struggling.I found barbershopping to be my relief because I became so engrossed in the music. “There are times that I have dragged myself here,” he continues, “but at 10 o’clock when it’s time to go, we’ve had a great evening, and we’ve been with guys who enjoy singing and made some good sounds together.” Harmony in sound, it seems, leads to harmony in life.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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