Barbershop singing is one of the trickiest yet most rewarding accomplishments of a vocal ensemble. Deke Sharon refers to it as "A Cappella's Martial Art!" Imagine this: you're singing a song with three other harmonizing ladies, each hitting the perfect pitch when BAM! You hear it. An overtone vibration, a resonant ring, a different sound than any one tone being sung by any one singer! This overtone produces a visceral experience and is unique only to four-part barbershop harmonies!
Although the voice parts in women's barbershop harmony have different names and functions than they do in other SATB or SSAA vocal styles, the foundation is the same - beautiful music, stunning chords and a passion to create the intangible, moving essence of music that brings us together.
HERE ARE THE BASICS:
You need to be able to sing in tune.
You need to be able to hear those around you and blend your voice with theirs, as our organization emphasizes ensemble singing, not a solo-building group.
You need to be able to eventually hold your own - that is, you will need to be able to sing your own part when surrounded by those singing a different part.
You will probably want to begin a normal warm-up routine at home before you practice. This will be good for your voice, and depending on what you choose to do for warm-ups, you can specifically work on many different skills at once (e.g., flexibility, range, breath control, dynamic [volume] control, etc.).
In order to keep your level consistent and/or improve, you will want to make sure you have a plan for practicing the songs at home. Leaning tracks and recordings are kept up-to-date to assist with this. It's just like exercising your body - if you do it on a regular basis, you will reap the benefits, and if you don't, you'll definitely see the decline.
VOICE PARTS IN BARBERSHOP SINGING
In simple terms, barbershop harmony is vocal harmony produced by four parts: lead, tenor, baritone and bass. Finding the right part for you voice is the initial step. Any woman of average singing ability, with or without vocal training, will find a part that fits her range.
There are certain things you will want to know depending on the part you will be singing. Most of us are familiar with the SATB or SSAA choral music, where the melody is usually in the First Soprano line, above all the others. The voice parts in barbershop harmony for women have different names and functions than they do in other SATB or SSAA vocal styles. The Lead voice generally sings the melody and is below the Tenor harmony: the Tenor part sings the highest note in the chord: the Baritone part fills in the all-important missing note in a chord that may be above or below the melody; the Bass part supplies the harmonic foundation (root or fifth) of the chord. Similar to choral music, minimal vibrato should be apparent in barbershop singing. Wide and obvious vibratos tend to hamper the "lock and ring" that we look for in our chords.
Tenor is a harmony part sung consistently above the lead. The tenor should have a light, sweet, pure tone that will complement but not overpower or overshadow the lead voice. Light lyric sopranos generally make good tenors. The range for tenor is G above middle C to high F on the top line of the clef. Occasionally you will have notes below the lead. When this happens, your tonal quality will need to change from being light and clear to being more full and round. Flexibility is the key, and knowing when you need to change.
Lead is the melody and must be sung with authority, clarity and consistent quality throughout the lead's range. The lead sings with limited vibrato to add color and warmth to the sound. With too much use of vibrato, the chord will not "lock" or "ring" or produce the unique, full and "expanded" sound that is characteristic of barbershop harmony. The lead is responsible for conveying the interpretation, emotion and inflections of the song. The range is equivalent to a Soprano II, and is from A below middle C, and C above middle C. On the rare ocasions when the melody line is in another part, which may be only for a few notes, the lead will need to be aware to lighten her vocal quality to allow the melody to shine wherever it is being sung. If you are in a quartet, the others will follow your lead. In a chorus, we all follow the director.
Baritone covers approximately the same range as lead. The voice part is similar to an Alto I except that baritone harmony notes cross the lead notes. Primarily sung below the lead but sometimes sung above, depending on where the melody is situated, baritones must constantly adjust their balance to accommodate their position in the chord. They must have a good ear.
Bass is the lowest note in the barbershop chord. Singers should have a rich, mellow voice and generally sing the root and fifth of each chord. The bass sings a relatively straight, well-produced tone with a minimum of vibrato. The range is comparable to that of a contralto or Alto II in traditional choral music, and is from E-flat below middle C to G above middle C. Similar to the baritone, this part is written in the bass clef an octave lower than it is actually sung. A bass sings with a heavier tone quality than the others and generally with more volume, to fill out the "cone." The bass part provides the foundation of each chord.
SWEET ADELINES INTERNATIONAL
Barbershop traces its humble beginnings back to the latter part of the 1800s. Men from all walks of life gathered in assembly halls, watering holes, community centers, rooftops - and yes, barbershops - to sing the standards of the day. Drawn by a common love of song, their repertoires covered a broad range of genres - vaudevillian melodies, folk ballads, show tunes and spirituals. By the start of the 20th century, this "hobby" transformed into a new and decidely American style of music.
In 1939, men officially formed the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA), now known as the Barbershop Harmony Society. Women wanted to participate in the chord-ringing, fun-filled harmony that the men were singing so, in 1945, an enterprising group of ladies from Tulsa, OK met at the home of Edna Mae Anderson and quickly organized "Sweet Adelines in America."
Sweet Adelines International, as it is now called, has grown into a global organization of almost 23,000 women, spanning five continents and chartering over 500 choruses worldwide. The organization's goals have evolved throughout the years but its mission remains the same: to advance the musical art form of barbershop harmony through education, competition and performance.
Want to learn more? Go to Sweet Adelines International for more information.