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Hitting the Right Notes

Centreville's barbershop chorus, "Sounds Of America," takes its craft seriously. Singing "Shenandoah," balancing high-voiced tenors against deep baritones and deeper bass voices, is not simple. It is not easy for the lead barbershoppers to keep the melody true, not shifting up or down to meet the other singers. But when tenor, lead, baritone, and bass voices form a thrumming "seventh" chord above and below and in-between the melody, the music is beautifully simple.

If you've heard the song "Sweet Adeline" you've probably heard a barbershop quartet. With anywhere from 6 to 200 singers, barbershop choruses are just larger, more robust versions. At a recent Wednesday night rehearsal 14 singers were enough to fill Centreville Elementary's large cafeteria to the back windows with the sounds of "Shenandoah ... Way hey, you rolling river."

Singers tonight are men in their middle years or older, though the full group ranges from early 20s to middle-70s. They practice for an upcoming competition in March. Most have brought water bottles to lubricate their voices during the 15-minute break.

Rehearsals begin with vocal exercises and warm-ups. Just as important as tuning voices is a singer's need, as Bass Pete Baum puts it, to "open their ears." Baum explains that through the day people are tuning-out, but to sing well you have to listen.

Started in 1996 with a nucleus of 13 members from the Alexandria Harmonizers barbershop group, the 26 original members of the Centreville group formed with the idea of producing a smaller competitive chorus. Creating sophisticated and challenging arrangements, "Sounds" has won awards in five of its six years of existence. For all its success, the 38 registered members are an informal group. As low tenor Sam McFarland says, his "Barbershopping friends are like a fraternity."

Before the rehearsal the members talk easily. With more than two hours of singing ahead, these men are here because they love music and the barbershop sound. In many cases members had sung in high school glee clubs or college choruses and had not lifted a note since.

On a beautiful day in 1999, "Sounds" sang the "National Anthem" at Baltimore's Camden Yards. The day was a rare exception to the group's luck with the weather. They usually sing to the elements. During last year's appearance at the Delaplane Strawberry Festival, it was rainy and cold and the group had to practice near a barn. Strangely, they had an unexpected back-up singer. Whenever their music director hit a certain pitch, a sheep in the barn matched it.

Try-outs for the Centreville barbershop chorus consist of prospective members trying to match his singing voice to a musical note, then to a series of notes and then to half-notes. Not all barbershop choruses are as rigorous in their auditions as "Sounds" is.

As it turns out, the greater D.C. area is a hotbed of barbershop singers with singing chapters not only in Centreville, but in Alexandria, Arlington, Bowie, the District, Fairfax and Montgomery County. These chapters are part of the tongue-tiring "Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America" (SPEBSQSA). In its 800 chapters through the U.S. and Canada SPEBSQSA has over 34,000 male singers. Female barbershop singers organize under the name "Sweet Adelines."

Barbershop singing is an American tradition, but has its foreign admirers. Quartets from Australia to Britain exist, but most noteworthy of the foreign barbershoppers might be the SNOBS — the Scandinavian Nordic Order of Barbershop Singers.

Competitive Barbershop Singing

Many songs, including most Broadway numbers, can be sung barbershop, but for competition traditional tunes are performed. Choruses and quartets perform two songs in competition. Panels of three judges in the categories of music, singing and presentation rate the barbershopper's performance.

Category judges are not looking at the overall performance. Music judges look at aspects including how well a group executes its musical arrangement. Singing judges pay attention to things such as whether singers stay true to the melody line. Presentation judges are looking at how well the singers convey the song. A bad presentation score would be earned by a chorus singing the somber "Danny Boy" stone faced.