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Finding your family in barbershop

Finding your family in barbershop

Evi didn't feel like he fit in with the orchestra. Why did a barbershop chorus feel so welcoming?

Evi Stiles, tenor, Great Northern Union

by Evi Stiles (he/him/his)
tenor, Great Nothern Union

I've been a musician my entire life. From a young age, people could tell there was something special about how I connected with music on a different level than my peers. I couldn't get enough of practicing, improving, performing, and learning all I could about music.

One of my favorite things about music was the positive reinforcement I got from my musical leaders. Raised as an only child by an extremely overworked single father, any attention I got from adults was wonderful. Recognition of my hard work and knowing it had benefitted other people's lives was intoxicating. Once I graduated high school, though, opportunities to continue my musical development became scarce. After an unsuccessful year or two of trying to be a beginner level piano teacher, I decided life had other plans for me and I moved from my hometown of Houston, Texas, to Plymouth, Minn.

After a few years in Minnesota, I learned more about my sexuality and identity, and slowly came around to the idea that it was OK for me to like both boys and girls. I realized I wasn’t the only person on the planet feeling like I was a man trapped in a woman's body. The day I learned what transgender meant, the world suddenly felt open and more welcoming to me in a way it never had before.

While at the annual Pride Festival in Minneapolis, as my true self for the first time, I stumbled upon a booth for a Twin Cities-based LGBT+ orchestra. The idea of giving music another try sent me over the moon with glee. Here was a chance to start playing violin again in an orchestra, with people who were similar to and welcoming to me.

My first orchestra rehearsal was exciting. I was assigned to my section and given new music in a folder with my name on it. I made sure to introduce myself to as many members as I could, and everyone was plenty polite. Playing music again was exciting, yet something about the group didn't sit well with me.

I soon began to feel very alone in that orchestra. For one, everyone was too busy to hang out outside of rehearsal. I also realized I had many more years of professional training and experience than most of the others and disliked being stuck at a skill level where I wouldn't get better over time. If you’re not constantly improving, what's the point in playing?

When concert season came, my stress levels were high. Everyone still felt like a stranger, and I felt like I was just filling a chair instead of contributing. After the performance, there was an afterglow dinner at a bar/restaurant. Every single person I asked to sit with said the seats at their table were taken. It became clear: this group did not have a space for me to exist. The group already had its cliques and I was not one of them. It was one of the loneliest experiences of my life.

Some months later, I began learning about barbershop. After a few hours of YouTube videos, I decided I had to try it and searched online for a place to try it. Enter: The Great Northern Union.

I finally worked up the nerve to attend my first GNU rehearsal and what a rehearsal it was! The moment I walked through GNU’s door, Membership Director Corey Hanson stood up from the guest-greeting table and met me with a warm handshake and a lovely smile. I was given a guest music folder, and was told about the audition process, should I decide to join. The whirlwind of fun and excitement I experienced that night was absolutely life changing. Every person on the risers was talented, and they were having fun at the same time. I had never been in a room with that full of emotion before. I felt more at home than I’ve ever felt before.

I'm certain every single GNU member introduced themselves to me and asked how I heard about the chorus, how long I had been singing, etc. The GNU’s welcoming nature brought me to joy-filled tears on the drive home. I couldn't believe it was actually real.

The GNU’s inclusiveness throughout the night made me feel like I had known these folks for years. Following rehearsal, they invited me to their get-together at a local restaurant/bar. Two different people asked if I wanted to sit by them. After we ate, we headed to the atrium area to sing tags, which were both fun and easy to learn. Importantly, each GNU member gendered me correctly. I felt respected and welcome like never before.

The next day I woke up to 25 new friend requests on Facebook, and I knew then I’d found my new barbershop family. The kicker was the fact that I knew singing with GNU would offer me room to improve and goals to strive for musically as well.

Later that year, I stopped attending orchestra rehearsals. It wasn't fulfilling musically or socially. Instead, I had stumbled upon a group of open and loving cisgendered dudes who all cared about who I was. They wanted me around AND they wanted to help me improve. Then-Interim GNU Director Scott Kvigne, specifically, took time to teach me the choreography. I passed my auditions with ease, and never once felt like anyone was judging me. I've been a member of the GNU ever since, and my future looks so much brighter now that I have a family I'm proud to call my own.

Brian Lynch is Public Relations Manager for the Barbershop Harmony Society.