Barbershop music calls to mind straw hats, white pants, red-striped blazers and old movies. The Singing Buckeyes are trying to snuff that stereotype with the help of Harmony Camp—a weeklong training experience for high-schoolers that aims to get a younger, fresher generation singing the four-part tunes.
“Back in the early 1990s, we became concerned that young people were listening to music but not singing as much as they once were, and so we put together a multi-day workshop,” said Mike Renner, vice president of marketing and community relations for the Singing Buckeyes barbershop chorus.
When it was discovered that young singers actually enjoyed barbershop, Renner said, Harmony Camp became an annual event.
This year, more than 250 students gathered at Ohio Wesleyan University Wednesday to try their hands at what Renner calls the “technical” genre of music and the animated choreography that accompanies it—no white cane or matching shoes required.
They’ll spend each day until Saturday perfecting large choral numbers before taking to the stage at Veterans Memorial to show off what they learned during their time at the largest barbershop workshop in the country. The Singing Buckeyes and three quartets (Max Q, Prestige and Maxx Factor) will also perform at the 16th annual “Stars of the Night” concert.
“I think for anybody who loves vocal music or appreciates it—especially those who love a cappella music—this will be a great show, and it will be hard to find anything superior to this in Central Ohio or even in the Midwest,” Renner said.
What kind of music will the kids sing at Camp Harmony and at Saturday’s concert? A little One Direction, Rhianna or Flo Rida, maybe?
Probably not, said Renner, noting that while it’s possible to adapt today’s popular music to the barbershop style, it’s not done very often.
What, then, is the music’s appeal for modern high-schoolers?
“Anyone who loves singing should try barbershop, because it’s an awesome learning experience,” said Alexis Ankrom, a recent graduate of Thomas Worthington High School who’s attended the camp every summer since ninth grade.
“People end up becoming so passionate about it because when you hit the right notes, it rings really well and it gives you so many chills.”
Ankrom calls herself a “barbershop brat” because her parents have been chorus and quartet members since she was young.
For the majority of students who haven’t been formally introduced to barbershop, Renner said, the Singing Buckeyes take an annual road trip to schools across Ohio in hopes of recruiting students for the camp. Last school year, the singers entertained the members of 117 student choirs.
During the visits, the chorus sings classic barbershop tunes, teaches the students to harmonize and passes out information about Harmony Camp.
One student who took the four-part bait was Alex Caperton, who was introduced to barbershop during his junior year at Grove City Christian High School. This week’s camp will be his last, as this fall he’s headed to Capital University, where he’ll minor in vocal music.
Caperton said he took to barbershop because singing at his high school made him feel like an oddball. “I was the only guy in the choir class, and so I started to feel like it isn’t really cool for guys to sing,” he said. “But I knew I wanted to, so I was looking for opportunities outside school where I could sing in a full choir.”
“I’d never tried barbershop before I went to camp last summer, but now I really love it.” Because this is the last year he can attend the camp, Caperton said he’s looking to recruit three other singers to form a barbershop quartet.
Renner said that he’s always proud to hear that a camper went on to join a chorus or become a music teacher as a result of learning to sing barbershop. He said those students are going above and beyond the Singing Buckeyes’ goal.
“What we’re really striving for is not trying to get them to go home this summer and decide they’re going to join the Singing Buckeyes or (the women’s chorus) the Sweet Adelines, although we welcome that,” Renner said.
“What we’re trying to get them to do is think about singing, not just as a high school activity, but as a lifelong, adult activity where they can exercise a true interest in vocal music.”