Horsham's Barbershop Chorus
Published on 7th October 2014
We spoke to members of Sound Company, otherwise known as Horsham Barbershop Harmony Club, to talk about the timeless appeal of 'a cappella' singing. We then spent the next week humming Barbara Ann by The Beach Boys...
Bob Walker: 'I started singing after I emigrated to Houston in 1968. I enjoyed Texas very much and whilst there I joined a very good barbershop chorus. I'd been a jazz musician beforehand, as a Dixieland clarinet player, so I've always been passionate about music.
When I came back to England in the 1970s, things were starting to move in this country. In the States they had 30,000 people in the Barbershop Society and I was lucky that I was able to help get things going here too. I remember the BBC made an hour-long show with Humphrey Lyttelton, about a competition in America. This programme was shown at prime time on a Friday night and after that lots of people started to join barbershop choruses.
I directed the Crawley Chorus, and we won four National Barbershop Chorus Championships. We were a power in the land in the early days of chorus singing, but gradually the members grew old and it disintegrated.
I was also a member of the first winning quartet in this country in about 1974. We went on a BBC show called Nationwide, which was presented by the likes of Sue Lawley and Valerie Singleton. We made a charity record so we were invited on to the programme. It was great fun and all of these things helped to promote Barbershop singing.
We now have about 3,000 men involved in the British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) and about the same number of women, who have their own organisation. We can't sing together, because women's voices are a fourth or fifth above men's voices, so it doesn't work when you combine them.
One of the lovely things about barbershop singing is that I can go anywhere in the English speaking world, and a good number of other countries too, and I could join a barbershop singing group and make friends immediately. There are always friends to be found when you share a passion for music. We do have barbershop singing competitions.
The biggest one is in American and this year it was held in Las Vegas over the 4 July weekend. There were some fantastic choruses there, including the winners, who had 158 singers on stage. The best chorus in the UK at the moment is from Bolton, and they did pretty well out there.
We like to sing as well as we can. It's a balance between having fun and making a good sound. It's all very well singing for fun, but you had better sing well if you are singing to the public, and that's what we try to do.'
Pat Deeble: 'I joined a church choir when I was nine-years-old and played banjo and guitar in bands semi-professionally for 17 years. Music has been my life really, but only as a hobby; I've never done it professionally as it's never been a way of earning a living.
I've sung in various barbershop choruses. I was a founding member of Windsor Chorus and I've also sung with groups in Reading and Cheshire since I started barbershop singing in 1982. hen I first moved to this area, there wasn't a barbershop chorus in Horsham. But some friends of mine sang with a gold medal-winning chorus in Cambridge, and I was invited to join them.
Four of us who lived in this region would go up together, leaving at 4:30pm after work and returning at 1:30am. I did that every week for five years but eventually it became too much for me. A few of us had the idea of setting
something up here. I wrote an email proposing a new chorus, sent it out to 11 people and eight of them replied 'Yes'. We met in the pub on 7 December 2012 and within an hour and a half we had issued out songs and arranged our first meeting here at the Unitarian Church.
We would still like more people to come along but we do have quality singers as we aim for a fairly high standard.
It's seen as a lot of old men singing but it's really not and we do encourage younger men to try it.
We sing a cappella, so unaccompanied music. We don't use instruments, just the voices that we have, and it's a great hobby. We came 21st out of 47 choruses at the national competition. We only have about 54 choruses in BABS and as it was the 40th anniversary of the Association this year, so nearly all of the choruses were persuaded to enter. We are very pleased with where we came, but of course we would like to come higher!
We sing in four parts; bass, baritone, lead - who sings the tune - and the tenor, who sings above the melody. That is what makes the barbershop sound and what makes it different.'
David Keep: 'I'm a tenor, so I sing at the top of the scale. I used to sing with the Cambridge group, and we were national champions. I sang with them for about five years and we did very well, but I don't sing with them
anymore as I couldn't hack the huge round trip. Pat and I decided we had had enough of making this journey, so we formed this group in Horsham.
You have somebody singing the lead, which is the melody, with the bass singers at the bottom end of the range. The tenors are at the top of the range and the baritones we call the 'dustbin notes' as they take everything that is left over!
The unique thing about barbershop singing is that, whereas the melody is usually the highest part in a conventional choir, it is set below the tenor in a barbershop company. It is an unusual format so you have to be very accurate to make it work.
In barbershop, can have quartets, or choruses of any size. The general pattern in a chorus is to have a pyramid shape, for example five bass singers, four baritones, three leads and two tenors. The bass singers are the engine room if you like, then you have the baritones, with the leads providing the tune and the tenors floating around on top.
Last year, we performed during the Piazza Italia festival in Horsham. We were going around the bandstand and Piries Place singing to people. It's not too nerve-wracking. We have our annual barbershop convention where you're singing in front of 3,000 people, so you just get used to it.
Most of the guys here have been singing barbershop style since it started in the 1960s. Bob is even one of the founder members of the barbershop union in the UK. People have this vague idea that barbershop singing is the vocal equivalent of Morris Dancing. They think it is for old people. But it's just great fun and great music, and once you start, it just stays with you.'
Ted Hornsby: 'There are about a dozen songs which every barbershop group knows around the world. They call them 'polecats' and the idea is that there is a body of songs that everyone knows. Anyone in a Barbershop Chorus of Quartet around the world can sing those.
On top of the polecat repertoire there will be songs that you hear quite regularly. We sing a Dean Martin song called Everybody Loves Somebody and you'll hear songs like Barbara Ann (The Beach Boys) and My Girl (The Temptations) quite often too.
Sometimes we introduce a new song and try it. Sometimes they work but occasionally they don't sound all that good so they will be dropped from the repertoire. We are going to be learning Misty (the lyrical version of which became the signature song of Johnny Mathis) soon, as well as Crazy (Patsy Cline) but at the moment we are practising a Christmas medley.
When I'm 64 (The Beatles) is of course a very popular song for barbershop groups, and we've also performed Fat Bottomed Girls and Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. We are each given 'teach tracks' where the songs have been sung by professional singers, and I just listen to them on my computer again and again. Just being able to listen to a tune means that after a little whole you find yourself humming along. Gradually, you learn the melody.
There is a lot of practice that goes into each song, but it can go wrong very easily. But when you're performing, if you go wrong, you just sing through it. You can cover up a mistake a lot easier when there are 50 of you, but it's a little harder for us as we are actually quite a small chorus. A quartet is the real test for an a cappella group as there is only one man singing each part so if you ever go wrong there's nowhere to hide. But when it all goes right, you make the most wonderful sound.
I sing baritone, which is known as being the weirdest part, because we don't follow the melody. We sing above it, below it, sing echoes and back beats and sometimes we're way off the pace of the lead singers. You have to keep discipline, as the danger is you can end up singing another part, so you have to listen to them but do your own thing. If you relax, you'll be okay.
My wife and kids hate barbershop! My wife calls it that 'bloody wailing' that I do, although all in jest!'
John Higgins: 'I have been with Sound Company since it started but I've been singing since I was a small boy in a church choir in Doncaster in the 1950s. I joined when I was about seven and I stayed with them until my voice broke when I was about 13.
Once my voice had broken, I didn't sing very much, as it was regarded as a little bit 'sissy' to be a singer as a teenager. I then went to University and didn't really sing again until I retired at the age of 55.
My wife saw an advert for a 'learn to sing' course in Burgess Hill, so I went along one Thursday evening and it just clicked. Now I sing on a Monday here and I sing the bass for a barbershop company in Burgess Hill too. We have a quartet called Stepping Out, which came 17th in the UK last year, and Nigel (another member of Sound Company) is in this quartet too, singing baritone.
We work very hard in the build-up to a competition as we are coached on our interpretation of a song, how we put the song across, how we move, how we stand, how we show emotion, and how we portray this emotion to the audience. Interpretation of the song and how it comes across is the key; if they believe in what you are singing, then you've got them!
Generally speaking, people are quite surprised by the sound we produce. The whole thing is about making the chords ring, and if you sing those four notes perfectly together you get what they call overtones, so the chorus sounds bigger than it really is because of these acoustic overtones.
It's a fantastic hobby and there is a great camaraderie, as we know each other well. You don't have to be a great musician. If you can learn each track then you can still produce a fantastic sound. I know people who don't read any music at all but they sing beautifully.'
For more information on Sound Company visit http://soundcompany.org.uk/