Perfect Harmony

Fate, it would seem, certainly has a sense of humour. How else can one account for the irony of a Toronto barbershop chorus — renowned for their gentle, soothing sound — rubbing shoulders with teenagers in a high school where rock groups with names such as Metallica and Smashing Pumpkins are idolized? The two are, quite clearly, worlds apart.

The two groups cross paths as the last students trickle out of St. Elizabeth’s Catholic High School at the end of a typical day, when the women of the Toronto Accolades prepare for an evening of practice, a chance to perfect their craft.

And what do these ladies think of the choice of listening material of today’s youngsters? “That’s not music,” laughs “seventysomething” Irene French, who has sung the lead in the 21-woman chorus for the past four and a half years. Ask any teenager what he or she thinks of barbershop music and they’ll probably echo the sentiment. Despite the fact the group welcomes women of all ages, perhaps this dichotomy of tastes explains why all but a few members are over 50.

“Kids don’t sing songs as songs,” says Ellyn Hakomaki, who has been singing lead for 25 years. “The lyrics they like always have to be bten into the ground by the accompaniment.”

Barbershop singing is a cappella music, unaccompanied by musical instruments and sung in either a quartet or a chorus. It’s characterized by three parts harmonizing to a melody, which is usually sung by the lead.

The other three parts include the tenor, which always sings the highest harmonizing part; bass, the lowest harmonizing part; and the baritone completes the chord by singing either above or below the lead.

The four-part harmony barbershop music originated in the United States during the early part of this century. While men waited for haircuts, they would entertain themselves by singing and making up harmonies. After some practice, they developed their skills so that they were able to harmonize to the popular songs of the day.

“In 1938 a male group in the States got together and called themselves — with tongue in cheek — the Society for the Preservation and Propogation of Barbershop Singing in the U.S. They were kidding, but many people were excited by the idea,” says Ronald Whiteside, a retired teacher who volunteers as the Toronto Accolades’ director, and who also sings baritone in the renowned Scarborough chapter of the Dukes of Harmony.

As time went on, women forged their own barbershop quartets. For example, the Toronto Accolades — which celebrated its 30th anniversary this past September — is a chapter of Harmony Inc., an international organization of women barbershop singers (boasting a membership of 80 choruses across North America).

At the weekly rehearsals, the Accolades sing their favourite tunes as Whiteside tries to infuse them with confidence.

“You’re here to sing, not to make noise,” he tells them. “You are all very able to produce very good sounds.”

The ladies smile. After several years with a less than adequate director, they’re thrilled to have someone at the helm who knows what he’s doing. And Whiteside never lets a mistake go by. “If I don’t keep hammering away at you, we’re not going to get anywhere,” he says.

Later, Whiteside encourages them to sing into hand-held tape recorders — a tool to make practising more effective. Clearly, they’re a keen group. Alternating criticisms and compliments, Whiteside guides the chorus through songs such as Don’t Fence Me In, That’s an Irish Lullaby and Old Songs are Just Like Old Friends. The group performs these and other scores at charitable concerts, in retirement homes and during the competitions they enter twice a year.

Most are not trained vocalists — they’re women who simply love to sing and enjoy the social interaction. More importantly, they seem to take pleasure in the constant struggle for self improvement.

Whiteside remarks, “It’s kind of exciting for all of us concerned because there’s all this potential just waiting to surface.”