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Free Barbershop Quartet Lessons at the Church

"Smile and you'll chase Mr. Trouble away."

They are singing which makes them not hard to find on this otherwise quiet evening. Barbershop quartets have a sound all their own, a cloying four-part harmony premeditated to draw listeners. In this case, there are 20 or so men working out their chops in a side room at a La Jolla church, a barbershop chorus, not a quartet. What makes it barbershop is how the individual voicings are stacked within the arrangements: "tenor, lead, baritone, and bass," director Kim Vaughn will say later.

"So, Senator! So, Janitor! So long for a while / Remember, you're never fully dressed / Without a smile!"

These guys are called http://www.sandiegoreader.com/bands/pacific-coast-harmony/">Pacific Coast Harmony. The news tonight is big: having made the cut, they are bound for the final elimination round at the 2012 Barbershop Harmony Society International Convention July 4th in Portland along with 27 other such groups. The finalists were narrowed down from an initial talent pool of some 800 barbershop groups around the world, from places like Germany and Sweden and England.

"Hey, hobo man hey, Dapper Dan, you've both got your style / But brother, you're never fully dressed / Without a smile!"

Kim Vaughn stops them and nitpicks. A gold medal is on the line. "Listen to the difference between smile and without a smile," she says. "The difference is what, only one dynamic? We're making too much out of it."

"Who cares what they're wearing on Main Street, or Saville Row / It's what you wear from ear to ear / And not from head to toe."

The singers have name tags. Their ages range from 18 to somewhere north of 70. They are bursting at the seams with some kind of energy. It is the way of all barbershop groups - nary a bad vibe to be found.

"It has to stay in tempo." Vaughn chops it out with her palms. She hears things in the mix of voices that no mortal audience member can. "How many people remember the soft place?" To a man, everyone answers. "And does soft mean fuzzy? No."

They sing the next lines with military perfection then hold the ending note in a glorious four-parter that builds in pitch and intensity until the harmonic overtones in all these man-voices produces a divine buzz and the heavens part and light from another era fills the choir loft.

"Oh. That's so much better."

Break time. Vaughn introduces herself to me, and then me to the group. I'm here tonight as the guest of Randy Clemens who is by trade a writer of cook books and the publicist from the Stone Brewing Company in Escondido.

"Singing barbershop music," he said in an email, "is something I never imagined I could do outside of the safe confines of my car or shower, but I've gotten a lot of guidance and gained a great deal of experience since joining Pacific Coast Harmony."

They are actively looking it turns out, for new members.

"Wanna sing?" a basso profundo emanates from within the group gathered tonight.

"Yes. I would. But you wouldn't want me to."

"We give lessons," Deep Throat says.

"I'll need them."

As a genre, barbershop has strict rules. From the Barbershop Harmony Society: "Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable (sic) melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop(dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that resolve primarily around the circle of fifths, while making frequent use of other resolutions."

Translated, this means that barbershop is a style of vocal music characterized by four-part chords for every note of the melody. What sets barbershop apart from other styles that depend on harmony, bluegrass for example, is its dependence on dominant sevenths -- jazz chords, in other words, and a lot of them. Back to the BHC handbook:

"So-called barbershop seventh chords should represent at least one third of the song’s duration."

Jazzy vocal groups like the Four Freshmen of the '40s or the more recent Manhattan Transfer, '50s-'60s doo wop, and the specter of boy-bands (Boyz 2 Men, 'N Sync, Menudo) notwithstanding, no one has really messed much with the foundation of barbershop down through the ages. For all intents and purposes it has remained format-intact since it was standardized in the years following the Great Depression.

The Barbershop Harmony Society, keepers of the flame was founded by a tax attorney named O.C. Cash in Tulsa, OK in 1938. It is now the largest all-male singing organization in the world with nearly 30,000 members including 1,500 quartets in 800 chapters including nine foreign affiliates.

But in truth, the roots of all barbershop music are black.

The barbershop style of music," says www.acapellafoundation.org "was first associated with black southern quartets of the 1870s. Black quartets "cracking a chord" were commonplace at places like Joe Sarpy's Cut Rate Shaving Parlor in St. Louis, or in Jacksonville, Florida, where, black historian James Weldon Johnson writes that "every barbershop seemed to have its own quartet."

The genre whitened considerably over time.

"By performing their musical style in public, masculine spaces, and admitting only white men to their gatherings, the organizers of the Barbershop Harmony Society opposed a number of contemporary social changes in the United States, including shifting gender roles, a rise in immigration, the economic instability of the Great Depression, and New Deal liberalism," wrote Richard Mook in an article titled 'White Masculinity in Barbershop Quartet Singing' that was published in The Journal for the Society for American Music in 2007.

"In this new context, barbershop whiteness enabled a group of white men to claim belonging in their racially divided city despite years of migration and displacement caused by de-industrialization and urban decay."

"We were doing a singing Valentine once," says Pacific Coast member Dale Vaughn, "and the family's dog was penned up out in the garage." But apparently, it was not out of hearing range. "When we got to a certain spot in the song, the dog hit the note the tenor was supposed to sing."

The La Jolla based group sings competitions and Christmas shows, and does church gigs and the like. In quartet form, they deliver singing Valentine messages to loved ones with a significant other under deployment as a member of the armed forces.

The chorus members launch into "Smile," a song that has been recorded by possibly every vocalist on the planet earth with varying results ever since Charlie Chaplin composed the music in 1936. In this case, the honeyed man-singing fits close like a warm summer night when the very air itself becomes a living breathing presence.

To a casual listener it occurs that barbershop is not unlike Gestalt, a philosophy in which the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. To wit: the individual registers of barbershop are confusing when sung by themselves. It is only in the blend of all of the parts that one hears the actual melody.

But one can also hear the roots of all pop culture extending outward from within the tight barbershop boundaries: the Beach Boys, or even a more complex Everly Brothers, but brimming with a measure of over-stated positivism not known to those icons, and all of it in debt to black men inventing "snakes" and "swipes" at the dawn of the 1900s.

"Smile / What's the use of crying / You'll find that life is still worth while/ If you'll just smile."

Award-winning barbershop chorus Pacific Coast Harmony announces a four-part series of vocal lessons taught on Tuesday nights at 7pm beginning on April 10 and continuing through May 1. No singing experience required, men of all ages and vocal ranges are welcome. RSVP (619) 475-1700

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by Dave Good

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