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Extreme singing, Lakefield edition

Barbershop music becomes way of life for Mickelson, Wheeler
Originally posted on The Daily Globe

LAKEFIELD — At 3 p.m. each Thursday, Kent Mickelson and Terry Wheeler can be seen climbing into a vehicle and heading north, bound for the Twin Cities. Then, sometime around 1:30 a.m. on Friday, they pull back into Lakefield.

What compels these guys to undertake this 310-mile round trip, week after week?

Music.

Singing.

Singing barbershop music.

Kent and Terry are avid barbershoppers, members of the local Windom Area Chordhustlers group and half of a group called the Lakefield Quartet. But for the last couple of years, they’ve also made the weekly round trip to the Cities to be part of the Great Northern Union, a five-time international medalist chorus.

Music has been a lifelong passion for both men, but the intensity of their passion and their commitment to barbershop music has increased in recent years.

Kent is employed helping his brother on the farm and is the choir director at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Lakefield. He also directs the efforts of the local men’s barbershop chorus — the Windom Area Chordhustlers.

“We both had good musical training at Lakefield High School plus family musical encouragement,” said Kent, who typically sings baritone.

A school paraprofessional, Terry additionally serves as a lay minister at the United Methodist Church — where he also directs the church choir — and does some sports broadcasting for the local radio station.

“I have several smaller jobs so it’s flexible enough for the singing stuff,” he said.

A 28-year member of the Barbershop Harmony Society — the umbrella organization for barbershop singing in America — Kent has been directing the Chordhustlers for 10 years. Terry, who sings lead, joined the local group eight years ago, finally finding time for the hobby when his children got older.

But the Chordhustlers’ history long predates both of them — the chorus will perform its 43rd annual spring concert during two shows today in Windom.

“Our members come from a wide area,” Kent noted, “from 15 different communities, from Odin and Trimont to Round Lake and Lakefield and Sanborn and Lamberton.”

For both guys, making music with a group of like-minded men is a special experience.

“It’s just getting together with other men and singing, trying to do as well as you can, and there are different chord structures that make barbershop what it is,” explained Kent. “And in the Chordhustlers, there’s been this camaraderie that’s developed over the years.”

“The pursuit of excellence is something that gets your competitive spirit going, and after a concert, there’s the reaction from the people who attend,” added Terry. “We sing everything from traditional gospel to jazz to four-part country harmony. The gospel especially gets us feedback. It seems to touch people’s hearts.”

While being part of the Chordhustlers has been extremely fulfilling for both guys and keeps them plenty busy with rehearsals and performances, they felt compelled to pursue a higher level of barbershop performance.

“I’d been to two international conventions (of the Barbershop Harmony Society), and it became my dream to sing on stage with a chorus like that,” Kent explained. “I never thought I’d be able to take that on, but then my situation at work changed.”

At about the same time, Terry received an invitation for the men to attend a guest night event for the Great Northern Union.

“We went to the guest night, and when we got into the car afterward, Kent asked me, ‘What did you think?'” recalled Terry. “We both thought it was great. We were hooked that first night.”

“As we visited about it, we quickly came to the realization that neither of us could do it by ourselves,” added Kent, referring to the miles they would have to log each week to attend rehearsals.

But before they could contemplate their carpool strategy, Kent and Terry both had to get accepted to GNU. The process requires two auditions: the first a one-on-one with the chorus’ director; and the second singing a number from the GNU repertoire with seven chorus members, complete with choreography.

Since making the cut for GNU in early 2009, their schedules have gotten a bit complicated. The Chordhustlers rehearse on Monday nights, although to prepare for tonight’s concert, the group was to rehearse three nights this week. Thursdays are devoted to travel time and rehearsal for GNU. The practices in the Twin Cities are three hours long, four hours with choreography.

“There are a lot of people who travel a distance to sing with GNU,” noted Kent. “Of the 85 guys who sang (at the 2009 international competition in California) in Anaheim, the average commute to practice was 60 miles. We have guys who come from Fargo, N.D., Decorah, Iowa.

Both Kent and Terry are grateful for their supportive spouses, without whom they wouldn’t be able to pull off the long-distance singing venture.

“My wife is very supportive of my travel,” said Kent. “She was more convinced that I should join (GNU) than I was. She’s very musical, too, and we’ve gone together to the international conventions every three to five years.”

“My wife, Tracy, is pretty supportive, too,” added Terry. “She gets to know the songs as well as I do, as I practice around the house.”

Knowing the music before crehearsal is one of the expectations of GNU. “Intense” is a word both men use to describe the GNU experience. They’re not only expected to sing to the best of their abilities, but also perform choreography while doing so.

“There’s a website, and all the music is there, and we’re expected to download it and have it learned when we get there,” Terry explained.

Currently, GNU is preparing for this summer’s Barbershop Harmony Society international competition in Kansas City, Mo. After placing third in 2009, the chorus bypassed last year’s convention to focus on making a gold-medal run this year.

“We were third in the world, and now we’re pushing for the pinnacle,” said Terry. “Our goal is the gold medal.”

Local audiences will get a chance to preview GNU’s hopefully winning program. In addition to their own concert tonight in Windom, the Windom Area Chordhustlers will host a performance by GNU May 13 at the Jackson County Central auditorium in Jackson.

“We hope we can fill that place up,” said Terry. “If you come to hear us sing, you’ll understand why we put so much time and effort into this.”

Kent and Terry also hope both concerts and the Chordhustlers Youth in Harmony program will inspire more people — and more young people in particular — to become involved in barbershop music. Youth in Harmony provides clinics for area high school students, and video highlights of this year’s program will be shown during today’s shows.

“Our mission is to help teach our young people the joy of singing,” said Kent, who also lamented that barbershop groups are aging and losing membership.

Both Kent and Terry believe that if other men with a talent for singing would give barbershop a try, they, too, would be hooked.

“It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done musically,” said Kent. “(GNU) is as close to being involved in a professional group as I’ll ever get.”

“I never played college football, but I like to tell people that’s what it’s like,” Terry reflected. “You want to do the best you can for yourself, your fellow chorus members and your director.”

“Harmony Leads the Way” is the theme for the 43rd annual performance by the Windom Area Chordhustlers, featuring guest quartets Vocality and Northern Lights.. Shows are at 2:30 and 7 p.m. today, with an afterglow following the evening show, at the Business, Arts & Recreation Center, 1015 Fifth Ave., Windom. The May 13 performance by Great Northern Union begins at 7:30 p.m. in the JCC Performing Arts Center, 1128 North Highway, Jackson. Advance tickets are available from Windom Area Chordhustler members or contact Terry Wheeler, (507) 662-5166; email ttwheeler_56150@hotmail.com.

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