A high school choir director’s journey into barbershop a cappella
GUEST BLOG: High school choral educator Jason Whitney went from being vaguely aware of barbershop to a vigorous advocate and recognized presenter in his state music education association— in an unlikely place for barbershop to flourish.
Barbershop. Choral Music. Mixed Harmony. It’s not easy being a choral music educator while trying to cultivate a barbershop program in Texas, let alone South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. Our area is 99.9% Hispanic, with a rich Mexican heritage, so to put it plainly… barbershop music just didn’t exist here.
I, too, was not a lifelong Barbershopper but I stumbled onto it four years ago. I mean, I knew that barbershop music existed, but I had no idea about the Barbershop Harmony Society and how big it was.
A breath of fresh air
When I began performing barbershop music with my students, it was like a breath of fresh air.
Barbershop music was fun. It had emotions and messages that my students could easily connect to. The guys and girls both wanted to do it, and I didn’t have the personnel to teach two separate groups, so I combined them into the mixed harmony group we have today.
Quite honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Becoming lifelong singers
There aren’t enough words to accurately depict how much barbershop has changed our lives.
I am a music educator because I want to show my students the doors that music can open in hopes that they will become lifelong singers and musicians. Barbershop does that for us. Our experience at Midwinter 2019 showed us that barbershop can transcend all age groups. But what I love the most, and what still brings a tear to my eye, even now, is that the passion for music-making among barbershoppers is unlike any other that I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Midwinter allowed me the opportunity to give my students an experience of a lifetime. For my students to participate in Next Generation Barbershop will be one of the single greatest highlights of my career. Those four days shaped and molded them in some small way for the better.
I’ve been a part of the Texas All-State Choir, performed abroad in my college choir, and have attended numerous conventions centered around music and education. None of them have come anywhere near my experience of joy and passion in the music-making process than in the Barbershop Harmony Society.
Watch UPBEAT! perform Edelweiss [from The Sound of Music] at Midwinter 2019
Harmony University: a Family Reunion
A prominent life-changing experience for me was attending Harmony University in 2019—one of the best weeks of my life.
I didn’t want it to end. It felt like a family reunion 24/7 among people I had never met before! There was a sense of unity and purpose, with lots of tag singing and all the ice cream you could imagine. All the troubles of the world ceased to exist for that week. Also, Donny Rose! Am I right?
I look at the world today, and I cannot imagine it without harmony… no matter what the gender identity of the group is. We can only grow if we open our doors to let more people in. Barbershop has done that for my choral program. We became a hit among our school district, and we were even invited to perform at the 2020 Texas Music Educators Association Convention (TMEA) in February, the first high school barbershop chorus to do so.
My Personal Mission
I have made it one of my personal missions to spread barbershop to the choral community.
It needs to be a tool in every music educator’s arsenal, because the skills learned in barbershop are vital to a young person’s music education. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mozart, Brahms, and all the choral greats old and new. But none of them have brought my kids to find an emotional connection to music the way barbershop has.
To sing with real joy and passion in the face and body. To sing with true meaning and purpose. My college mentor, Dianne Brumley, would always say, “If more people in the world made music together, there would be less conflict,” and I believe those words with all my heart. We need barbershop. We need everyone in harmony.
About the Author
Jason Whitney is the head choir director at Lopez Early College High School in Brownsville, TX. He is a graduate of the University of Texas - Brownsville where he studied under Dianne Brumley. Jason started teaching and performing barbershop music with his students in 2017 and was recently appointed as the NextGen Coordinator at Southwestern District (SWD) of The Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS).
In January of 2019, the Lopez Barbershop Chorus competed at BHS's Next Generation Barbershop Junior Chorus Invitational and were national champions in their division. In 2020, the Lopez Barbershop Chorus was also a music showcase featured at the 2020 Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) convention.
Jason's passion for music involves anything that gets kids interested in singing and most importantly, having fun and making connections in choir. Outside of school, Jason loves playing video games, cooking with his wife, and relaxing at home with their dog Cher.