Last year was my first time to Harmony College, and little did I know the magnitude of this organization. I knew that the Barbershoppers in Denver were wonderful and giving, but I didn't know that there are thousands of men just like them. I was impressed that the Society is full of men from every walk of life, yet they loved singing enough to be here and learn more to improve their skills. And what I found in 2002 made it inevitable that I would return this year to soak up still more. (If nothing else, the male to female ratio is a dream. And I have to say, I have never had so many doors opened for me…it's nice to be around true gentlemen.)
The classes offered really opened my eyes to what I didn't learn in my years as an undergrad. In fact, much of what is taught here At HCDC is not taught at music educator's conferences. Let me be so bold as to say, I learned more in one week here than I have at any traditional music educator's convention. Things such as the physics of sound, just intonation and how to adjust a capella singing, and the numerous nuances of barbershop opened a whole new world. I mean, "woodshedding?" …"Chinese seventh?"…"Barbershop 7th?" These are not terms in any textbook I have. I was surprised to hear that barbershop has its roots in the African-American community. This was important to me because of the demographics of my urban school setting.
Barbershopping started for me when I received a fax in the spring of 2001. The fax was an invitation to receive free music, learning tapes, and tutoring…in the barbershop style. Typically, unsolicited mail ends up in the trash, and I particularly thought this fax had a "catch" to it. I have never had someone offer to provide me with so many aides to help my students. So, I decided to call the number and find out where the lie was.
I spoke with Tony Pranaitis, a chiropractor and chapter Vice President of YMIH for the Denver Mountainaires, and he convinced me that his agenda was to help grow my music program. I had never heard of Barbershop and was leery about trying it in the urban high school where I teach. If you have ever seen Sister Act II with Whoopie Goldberg, that's basically what my class is like. But, "FREE" is a language I understand, and if Tony was willing to do all the work, I was willing to have him come to my classroom.
Most music teachers struggle to get boys into their programs and I thought that quartet singing might be a good start to entice young men to sing. Tony provided me with a music educator's packet with simple songs and rehearsal tapes. I convinced four of my best singers to try barbershop, and Dinner for Four was born. We learned everything from what to wear to how to stand according to parts. The boys loved the humor in the songs and the challenging harmonies, but most of all they loved the attention they got from all the girls at George Washington High School. Dinner for Four became as popular as NSync. Everywhere they sang, the girls just went crazy.
I think the main reason that people join an organization is because they can identify with that group. Barbershop singing provides young men with an opportunity to connect with other music lovers. Here, there is a sense of belonging, acceptance, camaraderie, challenges, and love. It is not enough for me to train kids to sing technically sound. I'd rather give them an experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
I am still in awe that a group of Barbershoppers would work so hard to become an active part in the lives of my students. The Denver Mountainaires and my choir have sung for each other in several shows. We have made strong efforts to become more visual in each other's communities. It just goes to show you that regardless of race we can all find a common ground.
One signal honor that demonstrates this common ground: in 2001, I was thrilled to receive the Award of Harmony by the Denver Mountainaires as a person outside of the Society who helped promote barbershop singing. I was also given a scholarship to attend Harmony College. Free. Music to my ears.