If you were to ask any man or woman on the street what a “barbershop quartet” is, you’d very likely get a description that goes something like this: “Well, there are four guys singing together in harmony. They don’t have any instruments to sing along with. They usually wear a striped coat and white pants and white shoes, sometimes with a straw hat. They sing really old-fashioned songs about their mothers, their buddies, or their sweet gal.”
Is that what you imagine too? I’m not surprised. After all, it is the image portrayed so frequently in the movies and television. This image represents a specific slice of Americana, a truly unique American art form that began nearly 100 years ago.
But all things change, and so has the barbershop quartet. First of all, it’s not just for men anymore. Both men and women enjoy singing in barbershop quartets. Usually a quartet will have either all men or all women, just because it’s easier that way to make their voices match and blend in good harmony.
Today’s barbershop quartet enjoys a wider breadth of music to sing than did our predecessors back at the turn of the 20th century. After all, time passes, new music is written, and the catalog of available songs grows and grows.
Quartets today have moved past pinstripes suits, too. You’ll now see all styles of contemporary performance apparel, or “costumes” as we say. Quartets are in tune with their audiences, and we are very careful to tailor our costumes appropriately to match the dress code of the event.
The image of four straight-laced guys singing about dear old mom has loosened up a little. We maintain our professionalism, of course, but we also have a lot of fun singing songs that engage and entertain today’s audience. We love having a good laugh between songs, and just being ourselves during our performances. The connection between the audience and the performer is palpable as we eliminate any barrier that might be introduced by that old-fashioned prim and proper image.
While all these changes bring barbershop quartets up to date, we are still true to the art form. We still follow the structural rules for barbershop music (yes, there are rules! Learn more about that in an upcoming article). We still sing about our former, current and prospective loves. And the singing itself is now better than ever, in terms of vocal technique, emotional connection, and showmanship.
Maybe the best change of all from 100 years ago is that barbershop music is now more popular and more accessible than ever before. All across America there are local chapters of the Barbershop Harmony Society (for men) and Sweet Adelines International (for women). There are other organizations as well, including Harmony, Inc. in the US, and an impressive list of organizations in the United Kingdom and around the world. (A quick google search will yield a lot of options.) This wealth of opportunity means that anyone who likes to sing can very easily find a barbershop chorus or quartet to sing with, and a prospective audience can very easily find an entertainer to hire!
We’d love to hear from you about your impressions of barbershop music. Was it what you expected?
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