The Sacramento Choral Calendar


Concert Review

Barbershop Harmony Society

Far Western District: Spring Convention & Contest
March 20-22, 2015

by Griffin Toffler

The Far Western District Spring Convention is an event put on yearly by the Barbershop Harmony Society. This year, it was held at the McClellan Conference Center in Sacramento. They also hold a Fall Convention – in Mesa. Arizona this year. The competitions, which are open to the general public, are the main feature of the conventions. There is a choral competition, a quartet competition and a high school quartet competition. The grand finale of the 3-day convention is the gala "Show of Champions" which highlights the winners. As this is a choral review, most of the attention of this article focuses on the choral competition.

I came to the Barbershop contest after having returned from touring a music school in Central Valley. I was pleased to discover a vibrant community with a faithful, well-informed following, dedicated to singing a cappella. My transition from music academia into the bustling community of the convention led me to wonder, “What in tarnation is the reason that Barbershop rarely enters into the perception of "’serious music’ in academia?” It seems logical to include Barbershop in the music curriculum of schools from elementary grades to college. The rules of singing Barbershop are easily learned and have the potential to develop the musical ear as well as promote cooperative listening and responsiveness to other musicians. And it's fun.

Barbershop cannot be overlooked for any lack of musical sophistication. For instance, only a small percentage of music students would understand the following sentence, taken directly from the program for the event: "Barbershop singers adjust pitches to achieve perfectly tuned chords in just intonation while remaining true to the established tonal center." “Just intonation” is a concept every choral director ought to have a good working knowledge of. Sadly, this is not the case in many choral settings.

Imagine the origins of Barbershop:  four fellows standing together, without depending on any musical instrument, matching vocal harmonies until they liked the sound. That natural blending of pitches is, in a nutshell, my unofficial definition of “just intonation.” Most often “just intonation” is explained with mathematical ratios or by detailing the physics of sound waves as they move through space. Those first 4 guys probably didn't know any of that, and yet, a lasting tradition of harmonization was born.

The advantage of a Barbershop competition is that it keeps the original values of Barbershop alive. The disadvantage of a contest is that it can lead to a tendency for the artists to cater to what they perceive the judges are looking for, which could curtail a certain amount of creativity.

Each group was allowed to perform 2 numbers. Some of the choruses did artful renditions with varied dynamics and styles, others were limited in dynamic and stylistic variety.  My favorite chorus was The Bay Area Chapter called Voices in Harmony led by Chris Hebert. They started with the slow pining of "You Don't Know Me" and then dazzled us with a shift in style in "Can't Buy Me Love," using clever props and movements to add pizzazz.

The numbers of singers in the choral groups varied from a dozen men to the 56 members of Voices of California from the California Delta Chapter. The predominance of songs dated from before the 1940s but there were some renditions of music from the 1960s such as "Daydream" by the Lovin' Spoonfuls.

While I had a great time hearing these choral groups, I also enjoyed the quartets of the high school boys' competition. The kids were enthusiastic, musical and entertaining. I personally prefer hearing the tight harmony of Barbershop sung in quartets, which seems to be more true to the original intention of the art. The choral renditions have an altogether different sound and what it gains in flair it loses in intimacy.

After the choral contest was over, and the groups were awaiting their evaluations, I wandered into a room where they were doing "woodshedding," hosted by the Ancient Harmony Society. Woodshedding is how the skills of Barbershop are passed along to others. A song is picked, one person elected to sing the melody (the lead) while the others are assigned the 3 other parts of bass, baritone and tenor. The facilitator provides tips and away you go. It is surprising how fast one can catch on simply by following the facilitator's pointers and listening to the other singers while finding a way of adding to the harmony. I participated as the tenor, and I had a great time doing it.

In this time of increasing emphasis on celebrities, it is refreshing to bask in an American tradition that encourages all its members to participate in singing together in any way possible. At the end of the event, when everyone in the audience stood up together to sing the anthem of the Barbershop Harmony Society, "Keep the Whole World Singing," it was amazing to be in a great hall with hundreds of people singing together in spontaneous harmony. The room boomed with voices coming from every direction, and I could feel those good old sound waves waking up every cell in my body.  "Keep the melody ringing in your heart," we sang, surrounded by just us folks resounding in harmony.

Griffin Toffler attended Longy School of Music and Morehead University as a music major for 3 years. Although she went on to be successful in her field after obtaining an MA in Clinical Psychology at John F. Kennedy University, she has often thought of returning to college to complete her degree in music education. She is currently taking conducting classes at CSU Stanislaus. Her first voice teacher, Olga Averino, was a major influence in Griffin's life. Griffin hopes to, in some small way, pass on to others some of the wisdom she learned from Madame Averino.  Her website is

 2015 Reviews