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What does “lifelong singing” really mean?

What does “lifelong singing” really mean?

As that great tag teaches us, “a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends”—especially in the company of barbershoppers. Why sing so long? Why serve so long?

Next to “hey, wanna sing?” probably the commonest phrase spoken by Barbershoppers everywhere is “I wish I’d found this 15, 20, 30, years earlier!” Once enchanted by harmony, one remains blissfully forever under its spell.

The Barbershop Harmony Society aims to offer that opportunity to young people everywhere, and the results speak for themselves. Hundreds of singers each year flock to Next Generation Barbershop contests and festivals, where they bask in thunderous ovations, laugh and sing with peers and folks three times their age, and step on paths of lifelong harmony leading… where?

As part of a continuing series expanding on themes from our 2019 Annual report, we’ve looked at young singers in their early years of success and exploration.

What lies at the far end of that journey? When we say “lifelong singers”— how long a life are we talking about?

Spending a lifetime in barbershop

Beyond the immediate rewards that singers feel every day comes the accumulated value of being a part of something for many years. One indicator might be the long spans of membership enjoyed by BHS members. Without peeking, guess how many current members exceed fifty years of membership in the Barbershop Harmony Society. Would you believe… nearly 1,100? And more than 300 of those have passed the 60-year mark!

Look at active registered quartets. About 215 quartets have been singing together more than 10 years, a pretty amazing achievement in a world that often seems so transient.

In the realm of service, we count literally hundreds of members who have served in volunteer roles for decades. In fact, among chapter offices alone, there are more than 300 who have served in the same offices for more than ten years.

What keeps people singing and serving?

Directing a chorus for more than 20 years

Carl Taylor
Carl Taylor

Carl Taylor got off to an early start. “I started singing when I was three years old,” he says, and he knew as a freshman in high school that he wanted to teach music, leading to a 27-year career in the classroom. “In 1989, I was surprised to be invited to sing in a barbershop quartet and I was firmly hooked, blessed to have found real barbershoppers and experience a fine quartet right away. We competed and finished in the medals, and decided to start this chapter in Ashland, Kentucky.” Within a few years, Carl had started his long run as the director of the Singing Kernels, a chorus ranging in size through the years from 25 to 60 members. “Our little chorus has won our plateau twice, been represented by three gold medal quartets, (Heritage Station, college champs in 1993, The Barons, seniors champs in 2003, and Rusty Pipes, seniors champs in 2012), and provided several district officers.”

And maybe most importantly: “We have been voted as the top musical entertainment group in our area. a number of times. Can you tell that this is FUN?” he asks. “At age 77, I currently work every week to keep our chapter and chorus going, although we have cancelled our annual show for the first time in 31 years.”

Extensive academic research compiled by the Barbershop Harmony Society reveals that “music provides a connection between one’s self and others. It provides people with the experience of feeling accepted, valued, needed and belonging.” As Carl puts it, “For me, it is not hard to keep directing. We have a wonderful core of singers that care deeply for our chapter and for each other. We constantly seek new members and shepherd them into the mainstream as quickly as we can. Our men love learning new music and I try to keep new things on the board regularly.”

They also serve who honor the community

Mark Fuerniss
Mark Fuerniss

“To be honest, I don’t spend as much time singing or practicing as our director suggests,” confesses Mark Fuerniss, who for more than 16 years has served the Central States District as its secretary. “I enjoy singing in a chorus, but have never caught the quartetting bug. I don’t consider myself a strong singer, am not a section leader, and have had no formal musical training, although I have been taking trumpet lessons the last few years.”

But Mark’s service and connection to his fellow Barbershoppers couldn’t be stronger, and he shows it in surprising ways, from what many might consider an unlikely seat. “A couple of the guys I stood next to on the risers passed away several years ago, and although their names were read off at our District House of Delegates meeting, it didn’t seem that anyone outside their chapter paid much attention. I thought it would be nice to be able to put a picture with their name.”

A Chapter Eternal tribute slide

A spark of care, combined with a spark of initiative, led to a great ongoing project. “One project that I have voluntarily taken on is a Chapter Eternal memorial played at district conventions. As District Secretary, with the help of chapter secretaries, and data from the BHS Member Center, I put together photos and barbershop information, years of service, special offices, Person of Note awards etc. Instead of just reading off names for our Chapter Eternal induction, their pictures could be displayed as their names were read, with an appropriate barbershop soundtrack.”

That expression of care for fellow barbershoppers he might not even have known personally makes Mark a community builder, reinforcing the network of people that define Barbershop Harmony Society as more than a federation of singing clubs, but a meaningful force for human connection in an often-isolating world.

Where does the road lead?

Few people who start barbershopping can anticipate the roads they will follow. “I wish I could sing like that” might lead to becoming a singer, a good singer even, perhaps a great singer. But the rewards of barbershopping are not confined solely to being a singer or performer. They come in the friendly familiarity of gathering time, of catching a breath together during a rehearsal break, of seeing a tribute picture of an old barbershop friend whose voice, long part of your barbershop world, will still ring in memory.

TAKE-AWAYS FOR SINGING COMMUNITIES

— Nate Ogg, Chapter Success Manager

These stories resonate with me, especially as a former chapter and district leader, for a few reasons.

Firstly, it brings to mind the unsung heroes of chapter leadership: the ones with the seemingly undesirable jobs, but those positions that show the highest tenure: the presidents, treasurers, and secretaries. Perhaps it’s the specialized skill sets, or the fact that nobody else feels comfortable doing these jobs that have such lofty expectations as compliance, reporting and fiduciary responsibility. Those can all be daunting, but we see members not only staying in these roles for longer and longer, but also doing the things that are nowhere in their job descriptions. These are the people that see what need be done, and make it happen. These are the characteristics of effective leaders: leaders that make healthy chapters. These are your unsung heroes.

Secondly, the longevity or our relationships and partnerships can’t be understated. Chapter membership of 60 years! Quartets staying together for 10-20 years! When we invite a prospective member to visit and eventually join our singing community, we’re asking them for more than every Tuesday evening for the next few months (like a community choir or theatre troupe might do), but rather, inviting them into an extended family. They don’t know it yet (the knowledge of that could be intimidating to most), but they are part of something larger. This is especially important now as we’ve been socially distanced and have most of our interaction with our chapter/quartet families become virtual. However the more connected we are, the more disconnected we often become. Yes, let’s connect online; but also let’s remember we have to connect offline, with the people around us. These are now our family members, so don’t be afraid to pick up the phone or write a personal note to them.

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