Photo caption: Some of the ladies of Vocalescence with their director, Andrew Howson
Unless you’ve been living in a cave on the far side of Mars, (with a doona over your head and your fingers in your ears), you would have noticed the recent resurgence in popularity of a cappella music and groups, most notably set off in the last couple of years by the ubiquitous Pitch Perfect films.
Well, as it turns out, a cappella singing (literal meaning: in the manner of the chapel) didn’t begin with Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick fighting it out on the national stage, but in fact has roots that are far more sombre and religious in nature. Over the years it has evolved into a variety of separate art forms which all embrace the one ideal – voices as the only instrument.
One such art form which has been largely overlooked by the general public in recent years is barbershop music. Comprised of vocal harmony in four parts – tenor, lead, baritone and bass – it is most commonly associated with four guys in pink candy striped suits and boater hats singing Hello My Baby with cheesy side grins. However in modern times it has adopted a very different face indeed (except for at Disneyland, where the old tradition continues in the form of the Dapper Dans). For instance, were you aware that there are still large international barbershop organisations that exist to this day? Or that these organisations have massive annual regional and international contests, where big stars of the organisation compete for coveted gold medals? Or that – gasp – one of these organisations is solely dedicated to the practice of female barbershop singing?
Sweet Adelines International supports over 500 choruses and 1200 quartets over five continents worldwide and sing a range of music including special arrangements of today’s ballads, classic songs, popular show tunes and mainstream music. Although you may not previously have been aware, the Gold Coast is home to a high level Australian female medallist chorus by the name of Vocalescence, who embody all of the musical styles above. We caught up with their Team Coordinator Jenifer Howson and Director Andrew to find out what on earth goes on inside the big secret world of modern barbershop.
“It’s funny,” says Jen. “We love the whole big secret club vibe thing because barbershop is really just one community. Anywhere you go in the world you will have friends and contacts and people to show you around and people to sing with, simply because it is a relatively small group of people and its easy to connect in that situation. On the other hand, having a low profile means it can be difficult to attract new members to the group.”
Andrew agrees. “Whenever we get new ladies coming to visit a rehearsal, it’s amazing to watch their faces as those four part harmonies start to ring out. In a lot of cases they’ve simply never heard anything like it. That makes us feel proud because it’s always great to get a reaction like that, but it’s also a bit sad that more people out there aren’t getting exposed to the magic of the sound that can be created in the barbershop setting”.
“Everyone just seems to think it is an art form for old guys, or that it doesn’t even exist anymore!” laughs Jen. “People are so surprised when they see our chorus made up of women from 14 years of age to 70 years of age, from all professions and walks of life. The only thing we all have in common really is a love of beautiful music.”
“And laughing!” interjects Andrew.
“Well of course!” Jen smiles. “And a competitive spirit too. We work hard to sound good, but we have a lot of laughs in the process. We’re a family, really.”
I ask Jen about their successes at national convention.
“We call them regional conventions, because Sweet Adelines Australia is actually just one big region out of the whole organisation, but essentially it’s the same thing. If you win regional, you get to go to international to compete. We’ve never won a gold medal in the open category, but we’ve competed every year since 2011 [the chorus chartered in 2010], and we’ve won a medal in the small chorus category every single year – two bronzes and two golds – so that’s a legacy to be proud of already.”
Andrew nods. “Especially since we’re the smallest chorus in Australia. Tiny but Mighty, we call ourselves. This year is actually the first year that we’ve decided as a chorus not to go to competition. We want to spend time working on our craft and give the girls a bit of a break from contest, while at the same time performing to hone our skills. We also want to introduce a bunch of new music. So a year off seemed the right choice, although it was a hard one to make as a competitive chorus.”
“Very hard,” says Jen. “The best part about it is that although our doors are always open to new members, this year especially we can really throw them open to anyone who might be a little bit nervous about competing so soon, to indoctrinate them into the chorus lifestyle develop a real love of the craft, which is where the beauty comes from. So we welcome any ladies with a love of singing, really, to come and join our little Vocalescence family!”
Vocalescence rehearses every Wednesday from 7.00pm to 9.30pm at the Gold Coast Youth Orchestra Community Hall in Community Drive, Ashmore. Rehearsals are open to anyone who is interested to joining or just keen to see what all the fuss is about. If you have questions or wish to advise someone that you are coming, you can contact Jen Howson on 0421 706 828.
For gents who are interested in joining an a cappella singing group, Sound Connection is the brother chorus of Vocalescence and rehearses on Tuesday nights. You can contact Peter Lovegrove on 0410 050 020.