by Major Terry CamseyWhat a funny name for an organization that promotes barbershop quartet singing! It stands, of course, for: Society for the Promotion and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America.

I have always loved barbershop quartets–the larger choirs that sing in the same style–and their feminine counterparts, the Sweet Adelines. The sound is so pure, the tension so engaging as they extend endings of songs with “swipes” (is that the right term?) until finally coming to rest leaving the listener with a sense of peace and finality.

To be honest, I have long wondered why this style of singing has not permeated the Army in the United States more. It doesn’t call for great vocal skills, or even a great music reading ability. Based primarily on listening skills, learning of intervals and precise intonation, it is a form of musical expression within the reach of many. Sure, some of the musical progressions and sequences may seem a little corny these days, but in terms of functionality ­ connecting with listeners and involving them ­ the genre holds great potential for an organization relying on the building of relationships and communication.

For corps that lack live music, learning barbershop singing is probably the most accessible and swiftest way to get a choral group going. Certainly, building the skill of intonation alone is a good grounding for whatever kind of group is ultimately preferred, including songster brigades, singing companies, or male voice choruses. Based on the tonic solfa (known in this country, I believe, as solfeggio ­ doh, ray, me fah, etc.), it presents no difficulty singing in any key, since the doh can ­ in the mind – be moved.

Years ago, all songster music was published with the tonic solfa as well as standard music notation. A few songster brigades were very adept at reading tonic solfa and, in one sitting, could read ­ at sight ­ every piece in every issue of The Musical Salvationist issued. In fact, I have even seen a tune book (from Africa, I seem to recall) that had no musical notation at all and was in four parts!

For instrumentalists, singing with a group can be very helpful. To learn to know ­ in your head ­ the pitch of a note before you play it is indispensable to a flawless performance.

We had a barbershop quartet visit recently during a weekday meeting. It was fun and it was inspirational. I found myself making notes as they sang, trying to capture the essence of what was going on.

Their intonation was impeccable ­ they sang in tune with each other. The blend on the occasional unison note was perfect ­ they sounded as one. The balance between the parts was perfect ­ each compensating, giving more or backing off where necessary to insure a cohesive result. The tone was good ­ each striving to match the sound of the other so that no one voice stood out to ruin the effect sought. The singing was unaccompanied ­ once the pitch was set, there was no need for the crutch of an accompaniment to keep the intonation pure. The harmony was close ­ almost so close that it squeaked! ­ yet, in no way hurtful to the overall effect. The group was intently focused ­ nothing detracted from the task at hand. There was a self-imposed discipline ­ each member was there because he wanted to be and was committed to the result sought. Above all, there was unity ­ the group was in agreement and each supported the other. Strangely, perhaps, no single voice was of what one might call solo caliber ­ yet, working with the others, was perfect for the song to be performed.

Maybe, whether we are musical or not, there are some things that we might learn from the barber-shoppers and apply to the shared ministry we have in the corps (or other unit) setting. They include the value and benefits of: getting and staying in tune with our fellow workers; blending our individual skills in a seamless expression of mission and ministry; balancing the work of ministry insuring that each component is given appropriate weight and that none is neglected; keeping the tone high by keeping relationships on a high plain, respectful of others; not blaming poor results on a lack of resources, but seeking ­ always ­ better ways of doing mission and ministry with the resources God has given us; working closely together and avoiding friction where activities seem to overlap: letting nothing detract from accomplishing the purpose for which the Army was raised; involved in ministry because we are convinced it is God’s will that we should be, and not in response to some guilt-trip others may attempt to place on us.

To be, in fact, a Society Encouraging the Propagation of the Gospel to All People within the Vineyard God has Given Us.


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