The new campus barbershop clubs
Student and BHS Lifetime member Patrick Blaha shares how he established the first official BHS barbershop club at UNC-Chapel Hill
Title photo credit: Hope Davidson
As of last fall, school-based groups can form official BHS clubs, where the group enjoys an affiliation with the Society without requiring group members to have individual BHS memberships, although some choose to become members. Young singers who love barbershop but who may not be in a position to join a chapter can receive official recognition and BHS assistance.
Here’s what we learned.
Q. How did you get involved with this club?
I’ve been a Barbershopper for five years. When I chose my college roommate, we picked each other because we wanted to sing together.
We were looking to do some a cappella on campus—there are probably seven or eight well-known groups at UNC-CH. All of them are auditioned; all of them are very selective.
But I loved just getting together with friends and singing songs, standing around the circle, quartetting and tagging. So we decided to start a barbershop a cappella club and create a singing environment that was really inclusive.
Q. Was this before you knew about the Society having the BHS club program?
It was before the Society had the program, actually. We had started getting together and singing with some people—mostly just doing some tags, some polecats—the prior spring semester. As we were trying to ramp up and become an officially recognized club at our school, the Society released an interest form. I filled out the form and got in contact with Devin Bradford, BHS Community Development Manager. She was a great help to us in getting things set up.
Q. How did your local chapter help get the club off the ground?
To become an official club with BHS and have access to Society resources and benefits such as using the Barbershop Harmony Society name, we needed $150 to pay the annual registration fee. We did not want to create a hardship for any of the students, and wanted to remove all barriers for joining the club. So, I reached out to see if the chapter I sing with, Central Carolina Chapter (Heart of Carolina A Cappella) in nearby Durham—which has men’s, women’s, and mixed harmony choruses—could provide support.
They were excited to be approached for help, and invited our club to visit a chapter rehearsal and sing a couple of songs for them. We had a blast! I was happy that my club members’ first experience with organized barbershop and with the Society was so supportive and welcoming. Later, some of the chapter members came out to see several club members perform in our school choir’s show. That really made an impression.
Q. How do you sell fellow students on the barbershop club?
Mostly through word of mouth, and through some street-corner tag singing. That approach has been very successful. We have 14 or 15 members now, I’d say 10 regulars there every week. Probably seven or eight of them are in the UNC music department and trained in classical voice—they’re semi-professional-level singers trying out barbershop for the first time. The other half mostly have never sung before. It’s a good mix of skill levels.
We were planning on a large membership recruitment drive for Barbershop Quartet Day on April 11th. But as COVID-19 would have it, we were all sent home about three weeks before that.
Q. Describe your performances and your repertoire.
We’ve had a couple of paid gigs this year, which fund our music purchases. The club as an ensemble does seven songs right now. In performances, we teach a bit about barbershop harmony by going through the classic demonstration of the four separate parts, building the sound by putting together a Barberpole Cat. Then some folks will step out and quartet a couple more Polecats.
And now our own kind of “chapter quartet,” calling themselves The Melanin Queens, have formed and can perform a couple of songs. It was really cool for me, with the mindset of “Let’s teach everyone about barbershop,” to see this quartet form in the club without my being involved at all. It’s great to have organic growth like that—and to see the club becoming a hub for quartetting rather than only singing as a chorus.
Q. How are things structured with the club and meetings?
We’ve emulated a chapter, to some extent. Meetings run two hours, starting with warm-ups and a tag, then we work on some songs. The president holds a business meeting halfway through the rehearsal, then it’s back to the repertoire. The singing portion is led by the Music VP—my position for the past year. Next school year that will be someone younger, so an experienced VP can be in place after I graduate.
Our president handles business with the school, by taking care of the things we need to maintain our status as an official University club, like reporting membership and managing the surveys and forms that the school mandates. We have a treasurer and a membership VP as well.
Q. What advantages does a barbershop club offer?
A lot of students aren’t in a state where they’d consider joining an off-campus organization just yet. The club has been exciting to me because people I know who wouldn’t be able to join a chapter are in my club singing barbershop.
Q. When campuses reopen, how do you see the BHS Barbershop club effort going in general?
I believe a lot of the success will hinge on the [BHS] districts. Having an official relationship with the Society gives me the ability to easily go to my district and say, “Hey, we’re a BHS club. We’d like to sing at the convention,” or “We’d like to connect with a local chapter.”
Before the Carolinas District’s spring 2020 convention was canceled, we had been in conversations about special rates for our club members so we could help the students experience a barbershop convention and perform there. I think that sort of accommodation will be most likely at the district level. It might be tougher for the Society as International and Midwinter conventions involve a different level of expense.
But I think that if you can get a person to any convention, singing tags until four in the morning, they’ll be Barbershoppers for life.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your experiences with the barbershop club at UNC?
Barbershop has been great for us because it has inclusion baked into it, especially when we’re talking about gender inclusion. The voice parts are what they are—tenor, lead, bari, and bass have nothing to do with your gender. It’s the function that they play in the arrangement.
It’s a switch from singing with a classical choir or even a pop group where you’re talking sopranos, altos, tenors and basses—where girls and guys are segregated in parts. It’s been a very positive, inclusive experience to sing a form of music that isn’t so heavily drawn along those lines.
And having our local chapter be a mixed-gender organization that’s very accepting and inclusive has been really great for us. I’m a little embarrassed that one of the women has better bass notes than I do though.
About the Author
Joe Simpson is a Chapter board member for Heart of Carolina Mixed A Cappella Chorus.