When 100 voices sing in four-part harmony...
Barbershoppers do it in four-part harmony
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.