International Conventions to have open quartet, chorus competitions
All singers to compete for top honors
Barbershop’s first international competition in 1939 named a single world-champion quartet. Starting this summer in Charlotte, after a two-year pandemic hiatus, one quartet again will be named best of the best — of all members of the Barbershop Harmony Society.
On February 7, 2022, the Barbershop Harmony Society Board of Directors voted unanimously in a historic decision to open its annual international contest to all quartets and choruses, without gender distinctions. The vote followed more than eight months of engagement with members and barbershop leaders.
“This landmark decision is about embracing every human being who wants to sing barbershop. It builds on an incredible, 83-year history and expands the life-changing experience of barbershop and barbershop competition to everyone, equally,” Board President John Donehower said.
“From now on, all-male, all-female and mixed or all-voice singing groups will cross our contest stage and compete equally for the same awards,” said Steve Denino, Board Executive Vice President and leader of its Strategic Planning Committee, which led the review of the contest format. “This decision embraces champions who are the best of the best of all of us.”
The board’s decision continues to recognize the freedom of Society chapter leaders and quartets to decide the composition of their singing groups.
They may opt to continue with all-male groups, have all-female groups or all-voice groups, or any combination of those, in alignment with the Society’s 2017 strategic plan, which encouraged broader diversity of all types across singing communities.
“I’m a full member of the Society, and I sing in an all-female quartet,” Board Member Maria Christian said. “So, too, do I endorse the choice of others to sing in an all-male or mixed ensemble. What’s changed is that now, all of us will compete for the same champion title."
“That is equality. It gives all BHS members the same opportunities and rewards, in both their personal singing experience and in competition,” she said.
Further details about the decision will be included in frequently asked questions to be posted on the Society website later this week.
The Board heard from thousands of members last summer and fall. In addition to countless individual conversations, more than 100 individuals wrote to the Board. Hundreds more chimed in via Facebook. District presidents and executive vice presidents from all 17 BHS districts (the District Presidents Council) were invited to survey their members and send feedback to the Strategic Planning Committee.
Society Treasurer John Santora said it was clear any decision would have supporters and detractors. Early on, a number of options were whittled to five. Those included international contests with separate divisions for men, women and all-voice singing groups, as was slated to start in 2021; an open contest without divisions; and an open contest during the Society’s International Convention with a legacy all-male contest during its Midwinter Convention.
Stakeholder groups weighed in with vastly different opinions, to the point that the preferred option of one group was the last choice of another. All Society Board members voiced support of an open contest, with different perspectives on how quickly to move and whether to add a male-only contest at Midwinter.
“At the end of the day, we knew that separate is not equal — that one group having two contests while others have only one is not equitable,” Santora said. “This decision upholds our shared values while also acknowledging a fabulous journey that has spanned eight decades.”
“We all respect the nearly 84 years of barbershop history,” Board Member Blair Brown said. “Personally, I’m obsessed with it. I love the culture that’s been part of barbershop since OC Cash organized the first meeting in 1938. It’s time to fully expand that kindness, humor, camaraderie, joy and acceptance to everyone."
“I was in awe the first time I saw a gold-medal quartet. I naively thought, ‘That could be me.’ Now, it really could be.”
Society staff will work with Contest and Judging officials and District leaders to ensure the transition to open contests goes smoothly.
And while this decision is big, contests are just one aspect of barbershop. In fact, the Society also has added festivals — non-judged performances – to its conventions in order to engage more chapters.
“Barbershoppers have varied backgrounds and views,” Society CEO Marty Monson said. “They are urban and rural. They participate in small and large choruses, top-level competitive singing groups and those that exist for camaraderie and community service. All are equally important.”
The contest decision is one more step in alignment with the Society’s strategic plan, which guided efforts in 2018 and 2019 prior to COVID interrupting many barbershop activities. The Board has been mindful that gender and equity issues have evolved since the plan was adopted in 2017 and even since the last contest plan, adding contest classifications, was approved in 2019.
“Through it all, the Society Board has remained committed to keeping decisions about chorus and quartet composition at the local level,” Denino said. “We all choose which singing groups we join based on what we want our barbershop experience to be. Now, no matter our personal choices, all of us have the same, exciting opportunity to compete and become champions.”
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