When 100 voices sing in four-part har­mony...

Bar­ber­shop­pers do it in four-part har­mony

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - GRA­HAM ROCKINGHAM

Bar­ber­shop­pers in Flam­bor­ough

It’s seven o’clock on a Wed­nes­day evening at Flam­bor­ough’s Mill­grove Com­mu­nity Cen­tre and the first bugs of spring are start­ing to gather out­side over the two base­ball di­a­monds.

In­side the hall, about 70 men of var­i­ous ages are min­gling, trad­ing jokes and sip­ping cof­fee. Toronto is still in the play­offs, so many are wear­ing Leaf jer­seys.

The weekly re­hearsal for the 100voice Har­bour­town Sound Cho­rus is about to be­gin, a room­ful of voices singing in four-part bar­ber­shop har­mony.

“All right guys, onto the ris­ers,” yells a man in khaki shorts and a bil­low­ing shirt.

At 36, Jor­dan Travis is much younger than most of the oth­ers. But he’s def­i­nitely in author­ity. Ev­ery­one obeys his com­mand and quickly takes their place on the four tiers of ris­ers ar­rayed against the wall.

Travis leads them through some warm-up ex­er­cises, shak­ing their arms, wrig­gling their fin­gers, shoul­der rolls and lip flut­ters, be­fore hum­ming up and down the scales and diving into a clas­sic bar­ber­shop cho­rus “Like Leaves in Fall, We’ll Fall in Love.”

“This time, do it as if you just won the lot­tery,” Travis says. “Very good. Now do it like the Leafs are win­ning.”

Travis is the mu­si­cal direc­tor and one of the founders of the Har­bour­town Sound.

He stud­ied vo­cal per­for­mance at the Univer­sity of Toronto and works as a guest vo­cal coach for sim­i­lar choral groups across North Amer­ica and in Europe.

He’s been singing bar­ber­shop since he was 12.

“What hooked me was the vo­cal har­monies,” Travis ex­plains. “Some of the har­monies are sim­ple, but in some of the songs, the pro­gres­sions and har­monies are chal­leng­ing. It’s hard to master.”

They’ll con­tinue re­hears­ing for the next three hours. Later, some will head over to Bos­ton Pizza in Wa­ter­down, maybe have a beer or two.

Har­bour­town Sound is one of the top 20 bar­ber­shop cho­ruses on the con­ti­nent. For three years in a row, the group was among a cou­ple of dozen oth­ers from across North Amer­ica and Europe to qual­ify for the In­ter­na­tional Har­mony Cham­pi­onships (2014 in Las Vegas, 2015 in Pitts­burgh and 2016 in Nashville).

The group calls the Mill­grove cen­tre home largely be­cause of its cen­tral lo­ca­tion (the hall rental isn’t overly de­mand­ing, ei­ther).

Har­bour­town singers come from all over south­ern On­tario — Hamilton, Burling­ton, Ni­a­gara, Kitch­ener-Water­loo, Oakville, Bar­rie and Guelph.

They range in age from 14 to 87 — stu­dents, re­tirees, me­chan­ics, teach­ers, busi­ness­men, at least one sur­geon and a judge. What they do out­side of the cho­rus, how­ever, doesn’t re­ally mat­ter.

On Wed­nes­day nights, it all comes down to whether you are a bass, bari­tone, tenor or lead. Some even in­tro­duce them­selves that way (“Hello, I’m Max. I sing bass.”)

Max van der Voet, 70, is one of two mem­bers who live in Peter­bor­ough, yet he still man­ages to make the trip at least three Wed­nes­days a month. He drives to Whitby, hops on the GO train to Alder­shot, gets picked up at the sta­tion by a fel­low Har­bour­towner and driven to Mill­grove. He returns the same way af­ter prac­tice, catch­ing the 11:01 p.m. east­bound, 10:30 if he’s lucky.

Van der Voet, a re­tired teacher, has been do­ing this rou­tine for two years. He also sings in a bar­ber­shop group in Peter­bor­ough, but comes to Mill­grove to be part of some­thing big­ger.

He con­sid­ers Har­bour­town sec­ond only to Toronto’s North­ern Lights, a choral group that won the world cham­pi­onship in 2013. Van der Voet sang with them be­fore leav­ing to join Har­bour­town.

“I had seen Har­bour­town on sev­eral oc­ca­sions,” he ex­plains. “You could see that the Har­bour­town cho­rus is a group of men where the bar­ber­shop cul­ture is present. Peo­ple care for each other. The ca­ma­raderie is won­der­ful.”

Bar­ber­shop­pers take their craft se­ri­ously. It has a long his­tory that dates back to the 19th cen­tury. Bar­ber­shops were com­mu­nity meet­ing places where men would make their own mu­sic, ex­per­i­ment with har­monies and pro­vide neigh­bour­hood en­ter­tain­ment.

By the 1930s, ra­dio had be­come the ma­jor source of song. Lovers of bar­ber­shop mu­sic feared the craft would be lost. An or­ga­nized re­vival took shape, and, in 1938, the So­ci­ety for the Preser­va­tion and En­cour­age­ment of Bar­ber Shop Quar­tet Singing in Amer­ica was formed in Tulsa, Okla.

The name has been mer­ci­fully short­ened to the Bar­ber­shop Har­mony So­ci­ety, but it still re­mains the com­mand cen­tre for bar­ber­shop­pers the world over.

Chap­ters vie against chap­ters in care­fully judged com­pe­ti­tions, pro­vin­cial and state cham­pi­ons are de­clared, cul­mi­nat­ing in the an­nual worlds.

Har­bour­town Sound is the Hamilton chap­ter of the so­ci­ety. The group has again qual­i­fied for worlds this year in Las Vegas, but has de­cided not to go. It is sav­ing its money for other things, per­haps a trip to Europe.

“Har­bour­town Sound wasn’t built to be a com­pet­i­tive cho­rus,” ex­plains Sandy Bell, the group’s pres­i­dent. “It was built to be en­ter­tain­ing. We put on a pretty good show. We put energy into it.”

Bell, 71, started singing 15 years ago af­ter re­tir­ing as vice-pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing and sales for a large sports cloth­ing firm. He lives in Puslinch, just up the road on High­way 6.

“We go to com­pe­ti­tions to find out how we are do­ing,” he says. “We lis­ten to the judges who give you eval­u­a­tions and tell you how you can im­prove.”

The group is cur­rently re­hears­ing for its an­nual spring con­cert, which takes place May 13 at the Burling­ton Per­form­ing Arts Cen­tre. Along with two Christ­mas shows, it’s Har­bour­town Sound’s big­gest event of the year. For the show, the hockey jer­seys and T-shirts will be re­placed by crisp black suits, gold ties and blue vests.

They try to work on six new songs for ev­ery show. On this Wed­nes­day, they are re­hears­ing Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah” and the theme from the “Bugs Bunny Show” … “Over­ture, cur­tains, lights, this is it, the night of nights ...”

This year’s spring con­cert will be ex­tra spe­cial be­cause a women’s cho­rus from Ger­many will be join­ing Har­bour­town Sound on­stage. The 40-mem­ber Ger­man group, called Bar­ber­shop Blend, is on a tour of On­tario and Que­bec.

Travis met the Blend when he was in­vited to Ger­many as a guest coach.

“They sing in English and some of them don’t even speak it,” says Travis. “They also sing some tra­di­tional choral mu­sic.”

Har­bour­town Sound is also host­ing a bar­be­cue for the Ger­man singers at the com­mu­nity cen­tre the night be­fore the con­cert. Plans for the evening are a main topic of con­ver­sa­tion dur­ing re­hearsal breaks.

As van der Voet said, ca­ma­raderie is a big part of bar­ber­shop cul­ture. Friend­ships are last­ing. When Travis re­cently moved to a new home in Alder­shot, 10 Har­bour­town mem­bers showed up to help.

And it’s not just a club for mid­dle-aged men and re­tirees.

Isaac Thomas, a 14-year-old Grade 9 stu­dent at Galt Col­le­giate In­sti­tute, has been with the cho­rus for four years. He started out a tenor, but grad­u­ated to a spot with the leads when his voice broke. Thomas gets a ride to re­hearsal with his grand­fa­ther, who is also a bar­ber­shop­per. It runs in the fam­ily.

“My mom has been singing bar­ber shop since she was about my age,” says Thomas. “My grandma sang be­fore that and my great grandma sang be­fore that. So I thought I’d try it.”

Thomas, who also plays on his high school foot­ball team, ad­mits that some of his friends think his bar­ber­shop­ping is “weird.” It doesn’t bother him though. He sim­ply loves singing.

“It’s pretty cool,” he says. “It’s a great feel­ing to be on­stage.”


The Har­bour­town Sound Cho­rus re­hearses un­der the di­rec­tion of mu­si­cal direc­tor Jor­dan Travis. Mem­bers travel from far and wide to Flam­bor­ough’s Mill­grove Com­mu­nity Cen­tre to prac­tice.

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