An old sound captivates a new generation
by Mariela Patron
photography by Veronica Orozco
A harmonious sound travels through the doors and walls of the Oaks Residence Hall. Zachary Green and David Vorobyov are singing a phrase from “When She Loved Me” from “Toy Story 2.” They pace around each other, humming, listening to their voices, searching for their individual parts. Once they find their pitch, they are ready to try the phrase again. They stand still like mechanical men and wait for their cue to perform, as baritone Ernie Reyes brings a harmonica to his mouth and plays a single note. Green and Vorobyov take a quick breath and begin singing,“So the years went by, I stayed the same,” as they glance at director Carol Stephenson for critique. After numerous tries, Carol decides it is time to build up the sound. She adds tenor Timothy May and Reyes and all together they sing the sorrowful bridge “So the years went by, I stayed the same. I was left alone, still I waited for the day when she said ‘I will always love you.’” Carol reminds them to stop pronouncing the “s” in “always.” They try the bridge one more time. Once they reach the end of the problematic word, one singer pronounces the “s.” The men in the quartet instantly smile and look at each other, waiting for the culprit to turn himself in and admit denying them of a perfect performance.
The Lordsburg Brothers, University of La Verne’s barbershop quartet, brings life to an otherwise vacant, cold study room in the residence hall every Thursday night as they practice for competitions and concerts. Created by Carol in late 2012, the Lordsburg Brothers, previously known as the Leo Singing Dudes, were the inception of the barbershop madness that has swept the music department. Since the Lordsburg Brothers’ first performance in October 2012, Carol created a women’s barbershop quartet, called The A-Team, as well as a men’s barbershop chorus called 3rd St. Sound, and a new women’s barbershop chorus, which remains unnamed.
This is not the first time ULV students have embraced the barbershop sound. The University, previously known as Lordsburg College, had multiple quartets in the early 1900s through the late 1940s. The great quartets of the time attracted many singers to the University for a chance to sing in one of the groups. Barbershop was later revived for a short time in 2005 with the La Verne Quartet, made up of four upperclassmen.
Carol, like many of her students, became mesmerized by the art form immediately after she attended a barbershop show six years ago. “I just fell in love with the sound and how excited people were at singing in barbershop harmony,” Carol says.
Creating a passion
Both barbershop choruses are now classes at ULV, but the two quartets remain extracurricular activities. Carol picked every member of the Lordsburg Brothers and The A-Team to be the first members of the La Verne barbershop movement. “I had a couple of students who I had recruited into the University who I knew would be excited to sing, and I wanted to give them something exciting to do,” Carol says. Even though most recruits did not have any background in barbershop singing, they believed in Carol’s passion.
“I had no idea what barbershop was,” Vorobyov says. “I felt kind of proud that she handpicked me. So I was like ‘Yeah, I’m going to jump on this.’” Carol introduced them to barbershop singing by taking them to meet some of the best barbershop groups in the area. One of them was Masters of Harmony, a barbershop chorus from Santa Clarita, made up of men ranging from 20 to 85 years of age. The Lordsburg Brothers say the experience was life-changing. “It’s an interesting thing being in the middle of a section of that chorus and hearing just a wall of sound around you,” Reyes says. “I just left that night with a giant smile that hasn’t left since.”
When creating The A-Team, Carol had two challenges. First she had to introduce the women to the world of barbershop. She also had to show the women that barbershop is not exclusively for men. “I had no idea what it was, to be honest,” member Melissa Molinaro says. “I knew that Disneyland had four people that sing (The Dapper Dans), but I didn’t know there was a female group and that I could be a part of it.” Mona Lufti fell in love with the genre the first time she heard a women’s quartet’s interpretation of “You Are My Sunshine.” “It was the simplest song, but oh my God, it was so beautiful,” Lufti says.
Since then, The A-Team has served as an inspiration for more than 20 women at ULV to join the barbershop women’s chorus. Sonora Hernandez, a member of The A-Team, says barbershop gives women with different voice ranges an opportunity to sing. “Sometimes when it comes to pop music, or when it comes to R&B, you have to sing high, and you have to sing riffs,” Hernandez says. “But when it comes to barbershop, having a low register voice is very rare for women, so it’s awesome when a woman can sing lower notes.”
Others seized the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream. Timothy May and Amanda Timko were introduced to this genre of singing as children by watching the musical, “The Music Man,” which features a barbershop quartet. May’s fondest memory of barbershop was in fourth grade during a live school performance of the musical where his father sang a part in “Good Night, Ladies.” May says, “I was like, ‘I like that sound’ and ‘how do I make it?’”
Barbershop at La Verne is part of a nationwide movement made up of young singers committed to preserve this old art form. Barbershop singing became popular in the early 1900s when men would improvise songs while waiting their turn for the barbershop chair. In 1938, the Barbershop Harmony Society formed to help preserve the art form that was quickly diminishing in the 1930s. The Barbershop Harmony Society currently has 25,000 members in the United States and Canada. The smaller Sweet Adelines International, which represents female barbershop groups, currently has more than 500 choruses and 1,200 quartets worldwide. In the last five years both societies have seen a steady increase in youth membership while the membership numbers among older participants have declined. Brian Lynch, public relations officer for the Barbershop Harmony Society says the society garnered 609 new members last year in the 19-year-old category alone—the largest number ever to join in one year’s time.
Carol is not surprised by this sudden revival of a cappella music in pop culture, citing the film “Pitch Perfect” and the TV competition show “The Sing Off,” which have introduced more young people to the sound. “I think (young people) have fun figuring out what kind of crazy noises they can make without using instruments,” Carol says. “I think the real joy of singing a cappella music is that you can do it anywhere. You don’t have to have a piano, you don’t have to have a sound system to plug your guitar into the amp.”
Kay Cannon, writer of “Pitch Perfect,” says the movie has had a positive effect on the genre and has encouraged college students to try it. “It gives (a cappella) permission to be cool,” Cannon says. “They are not in their heads that they shouldn’t be doing that. At the end of the day, music is just a wonderful equalizer.” Cannon credits barbershop as the foundation for present day a cappella. “Barbershop would be considered old school a cappella,” she says. “Modern a cappella is making instrument sounds with your mouth.”
The Lordsburg Brothers agree there is an a cappella trend happening, and Green says “Pitch Perfect” is an example of it. Some say the relevancy of barbershop can be attributed to the passion of its members. “The community that does barbershop is very, very strong and very passionate, but otherwise people will forget it exists,” Green says. In addition to the people, Vorobyov says barbershop music alone is enough to pull any type of person in. “It’s the feeling you get inside when you’re on a roller coaster and you’re about to go down,” Vorobyov says. “Something physiologically happens when you hear a ringing chord. Once you capture somebody, introduce them to it, and they feel that—it becomes an obsession.”
Younger barbershop groups are trying to attract their generation into the genre by adapting pop songs, such as Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” into barbershop style. Carol and her singers agree that every barbershop singer should still continue to learn certain traditional barbershop songs, also known as polecaps. “I still think it is really important to teach them those old songs because they can sing with an 85-year-old man and they can sing with a 12-year-old kid,” Carol says. May recalls joining in song with a group in a hotel lobby at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Midwinter Youth Chorus Festival this year in Long Beach. “Singing with random people really gives you a connection,” May says.
This January, the University of La Verne welcomed the Swedish quartet the Ringmasters, who are 2012 International Quartet Champions, as well as Dolce, Sweet Adelines’ 2012 Region 21 champions. In addition to performing in Morgan Auditorium, the Ringmasters held workshops for singers to perfect their art. The workshops included such topics as how to better lock in sound and how to improve body movement while performing. Lufti learned that in barbershop singing, every member of the group is important. “We’re also soloists, so my part matters just as much as the lead,” she says. “That’s helped our sound a lot, with each of us being more confident in our own parts.” The Ringmasters’ performance and their clinics left the university singers more inspired than ever before. “They make the art form seem like it’s just second nature,” Vorobyov says. “They love it, it’s become a part of them, and that’s what is inspirational.” Green first saw the Ringmasters live almost two years ago, and the quartet always leaves him wanting more. “They have always been my favorite quartet,” Green says. “I had to pee during their clinic, and I was so upset that I had to be out of the room for two minutes.”
Looking to the future
The La Verne barbershop sound has already left its mark on the competition stage. Last October, The A-Team won the Region 11 Young Women in Harmony Contest in Bakersfield. They are waiting to compete in the International Rising Star Young Women in Harmony contest in Massachusetts this summer. The Lordsburg Brothers recently competed in the Far Western District Spring Convention and improved their scores from last year by 10 percent. Although competitions exist, Carol says barbershop is not done for awards, but for the joy of music. Singers tirelessly rehearse to reach the high they felt when they first heard that perfect ringing sound at the end of a chord. At rehearsals, everything is scrutinized: pitch, pronunciation and vowels. “By having everybody singing the exact same vowel, you light things up, and you hear just (the ring) pop out above as the fifth voice,” Reyes says. Barbershop singing has become a lifelong commitment for many of these singers, even those who did not know what it was two years ago.
When Reyes thinks about the future, he sees himself as a 65-year-old man singing in Masters of Harmony. “I’m kind of stuck forever. I don’t think (barbershop) is leaving me, ever,” he says. The Lordsburg Brothers not only have a strong commitment to each other, but to the music. “Even if for some strange crazy reason I’m still not in quartet when I graduate, there will always be that part of me that will just love barbershop,” May says, then skipping forward several decades. “I would try to create a quartet with 80-year-old me singing tenor in ‘When She Loved Me.’”