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90 Women, 4-Part Harmonies

The Potomac Harmony Chorus sets sights on international success.

It’s a striking vision: nearly 100 women, all wearing matching bright red costumes but looking anything but identical. They are a menagerie of different ages, body types and ethnicities, looking less like a barbershop-style singing group than one big extended family.

That’s just what Ozzi Mask sees in the Potomac Harmony Showtime Chorus. "It’s about the joy of singing, but also the joy of singing with our friends," said Mask, who has served as the Arlington-based group’s director since 1976. "A lot of times they say we’re like a family, and we are. We’re also like a giant sorority — you literally know people all over the world."

The Potomac Harmony Chorus draws its membership from Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, as well as from a large radius around Washington, D.C. — south to Winchester and Fredericksburg, up I-270 to parts of Maryland, and west of Leesburg. It’s a regional group, but also part of an international one. In Nov. 1976, the chorus was chartered after the consolidation of the Arlington and Fairfax chapters of Sweet Adelines International, which is described by the group’s Web site (www.potomacharmony.org) as "an independent, nonprofit music education association, made up of women singers dedicated to performing and teaching the American folk art of four-part harmony, barbershop style." Mask estimated that Sweet Adelines had more than 30,000 members world-wide.

THE POTOMAC HARMONY Chorus sees many of those members in international competitions. Five-time regional champions, the chorus competed in the international championships in Detroit in Oct. 2005. After taking first place in the regional finals in Winston-Salem back in April, the group is preparing to compete at the Sweet Adelines International Convention and Competition in Calgary, Alberta (CA) in Oct. 2007.

"You get roughly 18 months to prepare for it," said Esther Wade, a chorus member and the membership chair for the group.

The chorus sings American folk music and other tunes through barbershop harmonies, which their Web site describes as "a highly stylized form of unaccompanied four-part harmonies and ringing chords, characterized by a cone-shaped sounds, specific chord structures, delivery and interpretation."

Competitions are scored by sanctioned judges based on four criteria: music, sound, expression and showmanship. Groups sing a ballad and then an up-tempo song, and must have choreography and costumes.

The Potomac Harmony Chorus will perform several times between now and then, both to stay in tune and to raise some funds. On Saturday, Oct. 21 at 3 p.m., the group will perform an original show called "Wahoo!" at the Thomas Jefferson Theater at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, 125 South Old Glebe Road. According to chorus president Janell Tuttle, the western-themed project is inspired by the group's trip to Calgary — home to the famous Calgary Stampede — next fall.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and children 12-and-under. Call 703-764-3896 for more information, or visit www. Potomacharmony.org.

"All of our concerts are fundraisers for us because we try and pay for as much of our members’ things as we can," said Mask.

The chorus also has a pair of shows schedule for December, including its annual Holiday Music Performance at Ballston Common Mall at 8 p.m. on Dec. 18.

THIS IS THE 30TH YEAR for the Potomac Harmony Chorus, and Mask said there’s always a challenge in trying to bring new singers into the fold. "We have pretty much the same group, but being a transient area we have people in and people out. We just auditioned four new members who found us through the Web site," she said.

That Web site has proven to be a valuable marketing tool for the chorus, which also uses summers camps, vocal lessons and special appearances at events like the Arlington County Fair to promote the group. Singers as young as 13 can sign up for the chorus with a sponsor.

Wade said the group chorus typically practices once a week on Mondays, from around 7:30 to 10 p.m., followed by a short business meeting. The rehearsals are held at Faith Lutheran Church, 3313 Arlington Blvd.

Mask said after all these years, it’s still all about the music. "I don’t get to sing with the chorus because I’m the director, but I get to sing with a quartet," she said, "and it’s just a joy."

Tuttle said Mask has helped bring an identity to the Potomac Harmony Chorus. "We're a family. Every Sweet Adelines chorus had a personality, and that's ours."

Wade said it's been a joy to work with Mask since she joined the chorus in 1983. "It's wonderful. She's our big mother hen and we're her little chickens."