Sunday, July 05, 2009

BHS Keeps the Whole Word Singing

Last week my son and I read a great book from Andrew Clement's Jake Drake series titled Know-It-All about a school science fair. A know-it-all scares his classmates away from the competition by touting his great work -- an expensive project really put together by his father. But the hero Jake Drake persists on his science project, working diligently and quietly. Of course I expected Jake to win the science fair (hey, this is a kids' book), but Clements throws us for a loop. Jake places second, the know-it-all places third, and first prize goes to a kid who had tested the impact of sunlight on grasshopper eggs over 3 months, which means he had started his experiment months before the science fair was even announced. Jake ended up feeling okay about losing, because the winner really deserved it.

That's how I felt this weekend at the annual Barbershop Harmony Contest which was in Anaheim this year. The BHS has 34,000 members worldwide who compete annually in their districts for a chance to represent their regions in the international contest. My chorus Voices In Harmony once again won the Far Western U.S. District and placed third last year internationally so we had aspirations to win.

But this year the competition was just too good. Actually, great. The winners, Missouri's Ambassadors of Harmony, racked up the best score in the history of the contest dating back to the 50's. The music was damned near pefect, and their showmanship stunning. About halfway through their uptune 76 Trombones, the front line of singers suddenly and magically transformed in a flash from black tuxedo to a glistening white and gold marching band, pulling 8,000 spectators out of their seats. It will be a classic number (that unfortunately isn't available yet on YouTube).

But the highlight of the contest took place in the hallways of the Anaheim hotels where a thousand singers mingled and grouped into ad hoc quartets, singing into the wee hours of each morning. (Above are my chorus-mates Will, Jeff, Greg, and Kevin who still came to BHS in his wheelchair after literally breaking his back 3 weeks ago.) There were various parties, but the best is always the Rainbow Party hosted by the association's gay contingency. Here some of the best groups -- like Zero8 from Sweden in the photo below (music sample) -- perform raunchy versions of their barbershop numbers. It's a particularly funny spectacle since barbershop singers love to cloak themselves in Jesus Christ and America. In fact the Jesus worship and borderline jingoism at BHS can border on creepy, so it was somehow gratifying to hear XXX songs (with lots of on-stage writhing and humping) from a clean-cut baritone who had -- just 6 hours earlier on stage at Honda Center -- righteously credited Our Savior the Lord for his quartet's gold medal.

BHS is an international association and so the contest begins with national anthems from all the countries represented. But unlike other Honda Center events in which a performer sings the Star Spangled Banner, instead a musical director led 8,000 barbershop singers in song. Instinctively, this massive crowd of semi-professional singers performed our anthem in perfect pitch and four part harmony as I've never heard it before. (I tried to bootleg a recording using my Blackberry's measly microphone, which you can download and listen to if you don't mind the repeating "voice logo" of the free converter I used.)

If you're a singer and this event sounds like fun to you, come join Voices in Harmony for our next tuesday night rehearsal -- we audition new members all year round, and we're your best shot outside of Missouri for making it to the international stage!

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  1. Anonymous6:02 PM

    "Creepy" is a pretty good word for the exuberant professions of faith that one often hears at these conventions. That makes it particularly impressive to me that BHS contest rules prohibit songs with religious content (or racial, or patriotic, or "divisive"). This year's quartet winners won despite losing several penalty points because one of their songs alluded very slightly to a religious theme. Given the roots of the organization and the musical style, it's an admirably inclusive stance for them to take.

  2. Ambassadors of Harmony performance is now on YouTube. Wow!

    Link to YouTube:

    Embedded on their site: