Every Wednesday evening, Patrick and Patricia Ulmen trek from their Nashua home to the Nashua Senior Center.
For many years, they tell me, they’ve made their way to the Granite Statesmen practice — every minute they can soak in of that alluring, four-part harmony sound, they will.
The evening that I met them, Wednesday, Oct. 17, they were singing along to the holiday jingles with the Statesmen.
At first, I thought they were audience members; they sat together at a side table perpendicular to the Statesmen on their chorus risers. (They knew all of the words to the songs, but really, who doesn’t know all of the words to “Walking in a Winter Wonderland?”)
How long had they been attending these rehearsals? Was it a weekly thing? I asked. The answer required some math. “About 42 years now,” Patricia said. Until last year, Patrick had stood on the risers himself; he joined the Granite Statesmen after the couple, along with their daughter, moved to the East Coast. They didn’t know anyone when they moved here, they told me. One of his fellow Statesmen who still attends practices today, Ron Menard, convinced him to join the group, even though Patrick previously had never sung a tune for an audience.
“We all liked to sing together,” Patrick told me. “In the car, with our daughter, Kathy.” He was uncertain about how he’d perform in a Barbershop choir such as this when he began so long ago. But he learned everything he needed to; he learned the music, the timing, and most importantly, he became a part of this close-knit community.
Patrick can’t stand on the risers anymore; he had to spend time in the hospital last year, he explained, “And now I’m his wheels!” Patricia said. But their devotion to the Granite Statesmen is as determined as ever.
“We love the camaraderie with this group,” Patricia said. Patrick had been in the military for 30 years, and the camaraderie there was something that Patricia loved. They found it again in the Statesmen.
This practice was the first of many local singing group rehearsals that I attended. But as I discovered, the same story is repeated throughout southern New Hampshire with different people, in different groups.
Pat and Pat’s story is one example of the fondness New Hampshire singers have for their a cappella groups and chorales, and not just because of the magic of making music. It’s the joy of being part of something bigger than yourself.
“They took us right in,” Patricia said, smiling.
Every singing group has its own personality, shaped and expressed by the songs it sings, the places it sings in, and its style of presentation.
But in every chorus, the singers surveyed say the same thing: it’s a family.
“It brings a lot of joy, just making music like that — it’s a great way to meet a lot of different people who you might not normally interact with… It’s good for your health, mind and soul to have a hobby that keeps you learning something new while expressing yourself,” said Deb Green, a member of New England Voices in Harmony in Nashua.
In some cases, generations of families join these community choruses. Steve Tramack, for instance, director of Nashua’s Granite Statesmen, is able to enjoy the company of both his 13-year-old son and his father during singing rehearsals and performances.
His wife and daughters are members of what’s affectionately called the “wife” chorus, Nashua’s New England Voices in Harmony. He met his wife through barbershopping, and most of his friends are barbershoppers.
He and his family sing together, too, both in the car and on stage. Friends call them the “Von-Tramack family.”
“What’s great about many community choruses is that in many cases, they’re led by a high school chorus teacher. It’s nice to get the intergenerational feel to it,” said Jamie Saucier, director of the Merrimack Concert Association Choir, voice teacher and organizer of Voices of the 603, an annual event that invites middle and high school students from all over the state for workshops and a show (which was held this year on Friday, Oct. 12).
While not every chorus can boast of hosting families of three generations, music is something that bridges the gap between ages. In the Voices of the 603 concert, kids as young as 10 and adults as old as 90 sang together at the same time, Saucier said. Many groups offer a similar age range, with high school students and retired workers under one roof, singing the same tune.
From the Middle Ages to modern day
Choral music began because people wanted to sing better in church, Saucier said in a phone interview.
Instruments weren’t allowed in church, back in the 1400s and 1500s. The term “a cappella” refers to music performed “in the style of the chapel” — in other words, with no accompaniment.
As it refers to music, the term “barbershop” unofficially began 1910, when “Mister Jefferson Lord, Play that Barbershop Chord” was published. In the 1930s, barbershop music went mainstream with sheet music, and 1938 marked the beginning of the Barbershop Harmony Society. At first, it was called the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A.. Today, barbershop music is very popular in New Hampshire among both men and women.
Doo-wop came along in the 1940s, with a lead singer backed by harmonic vocals repeating words such as “doo-wop.” The “jigga jigga” you hear in the background in a cappella songs today began with doo-wop, Saucier said.
One of the first mainstream a cappella groups was Rockapella. The five member-group formed in the mid-’80s and was famous as the house band for the show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.
With five voices, one thing particularly noteworthy about this group was its addition of a “mouth drummer” in 1993, Saucier said. Jeff Thatcher, one of the pioneers of the form, created guttural throat songs along with brass-instrument-style “spitting” sounds, which were captured by hand microphones. Those percussion sounds are a hallmark of in modern-day beatboxing — that’s the background percussion sounds you’ll hear in popular a cappella or hip-hop that are actually made by a person’s voice.
“Now, any music you hear can be made into a cappella — in live or in audio recording, you can make the human voice sound like an instrument,” Saucier said.
With arts, music and theater enduring cuts in funding, and with instruments and rehearsal space more expensive than ever, a cappella thrives. All you need is a dedicated group of singers and a song arrangement, Saucier said.
Tryouts and technology
So you’re hooked. Now what?
“We want women to join who just want to sing,” said Deb Green of New England Voices in Harmony, which has around 40 members and has been active for about 12 years. “Some members can read music, some can’t. You have to be able to sing, but it doesn’t have to be professional. We help new people improve and make the best of their voice,” Green said.
Other groups, such as Manchester’s Aksara, are for more experienced singers. Reading music is a requirement, and the group presents a tremendous commitment, practicing once a week for 48 weeks of the year, in addition to practice outside of rehearsals.
Many groups require auditions, however, they’re more relaxed in requirements — they don’t necessarily require you to know how to read music; what is important is to be able to hear it, said member Jane McClung of the Concord Chorale.
“Folks will say to me, ‘I don’t know how to sing. I only sing two notes.’ We say, ‘Come anyway — we can work with you!’” said Peter Sajko of the Concord Coachmen. “Our group is made up of retirees, lawyers, school teachers, but then we also have individuals in their 20s and 30s,” he said.
Rhythm of New Hampshire holds tryouts, but they’re less strenuous than you might think. Rennee Fellows, assistant director of the chorus, eases the transition for newbies with a “Barbershop Bootcamp.”
Technology also helps ease the transition for those who are unable to read music; in this group, a singer can learn her part by listening to a recording of that part alone, a recording with that part dominant and a recording with that part missing.
This is also true with the New Hampshire Gay Men’s chorus, said Peter Lund, president of its board of directors. Singers aren’t required to read music, although it certainly helps; those singers who are unable to read music will rely heavily on recordings to learn and practice new music.
This idea of singing your part along with a recording of the other parts has been around for a while, but today’s technology makes it much easier.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago, we used cassette tapes, which were much more cumbersome,” said John Green, tenor and member of the Nashua quartet On Air. “You were always switching tapes. Today, you can download them on an MP3 player, download them on one CD or on an iPod, to listen any time.”
Even people who can read music may not always be able to read how the music will sound. The Internet helps there, too. In the past, “I’d be looking at the song 150 times, checking every note, laying in the choral arrangement,” Saucier said, referring to the time when he directed UNH Durham’s Not Too Sharp and Alabaster Blue a few years ago. Now, the arrangements can be downloaded.
In finding arrangements, there are still copyright issues to worry about (usually you’ll have to go to the composer directly), but distribution is much easier, said Kurt Boutin, also from On Air. “There are an unlimited amount of resources available online, either to get music or to sample music,” he said. “Ten, 15 years ago, you couldn’t do that.”
The Internet also makes these singing groups more accessible to would-be members. The large number of new people who attended the open sing held by the Granite Statesmen found out about the event through the Internet; new singers at the Thursday, Oct. 18, Rhythm of New Hampshire chorus practice also found out about the organization online.
The Glee bump
Nationally popular TV shows like Glee and The Sing-Off (a reality competition in which New Hampshire’s Dartmouth Aires came in second) have brought a whirlwind of popularity to something that wasn’t always so cool.
“It makes a cappella larger in the schools. Even the songs where on Glee they have fake bands playing in the background, they make the a cappella arrangements available on musicnotes.com,” he said. “It’s getting students interested. Not everyone is going to sound as wonderful as Glee, but they’ve created this ‘glutinous spark,’” with the availability of the arrangement, Saucier said.
Of course, it’s important to note that with pop culture come some misconceptions. “People come in expecting Glee, and that’s not what happens,” Saucier said, chuckling. In a real chorus, you’re not going to be learning eight new songs a week. Learning songs takes practice — lots and lots of practice outside of rehearsals. John Bowes of the New Hampshire Gay Men’s chorus and Symphony NH Chorus says he practices singing most days, for as short a time as a half hour or as long as a couple of hours. He’s been a member of the New Hampshire Gay Men’s chorus for three years.
Different groups spend different amounts of time learning new songs; the New Hampshire Gay Men’s chorus just began learning the music for its “Colors of Winter” show the first two weekends in December, while the Concord Coachmen work tirelessly on five or six songs each season.
Some groups offer bootcamps, some make heavy use of audio recordings, but old-fashioned time and practice are always what make the pieces come together.
Looking the part
When I walked into the Concord Coachmen’s Thursday rehearsal, the 35 to 40 men were deciding what to wear to their district-wide competition that weekend. It’s a big deal, I found out. What you wear can affect how you’re judged and, more importantly, how the audience views your performance.
Smiling and presenting good posture aren’t just for looks, it turns out. The expression on your face, the bend of your knees, the posture of your back will all affect how your voice sounds.
The group’s director, Eric Ruthenberg, wore a sign around his neck that said, “FACE.” He had been urging the group to use facial expressions to help express the song. He’d earlier joked, “Do I need a sign that says ‘face’ so that you’ll remember?” At their Oct. 18 practice, they made him one.
“If you stood there rigid, militant, it would affect the sound and the way you sing,” Ruthenberg said. Good posture makes it easier to produce good sound. Standing up makes your voice stronger.
Ruthenberg and the singers demonstrated what happens when you sing a love song with an angry face and what it sounds like with a happy expression. The difference was noticeable; there was a harmonic sound that was more present when their faces matched their expression — the sound was cleaner, and, in this song, more chipper.
Rhythm of New Hampshire choreographed a theater production to go along with its winter concert, which will be held Dec. 1. But there’s a little bit of dance choreography in the numbers that isn’t in the show, too; in one of their favorite songs, “Grapefruit Diet,” Artistic Director Jessie Olsan choreographed hand movements and wiggles to perform with the music. It looks like more fun, and it seems to get the singers energized.
For the competitor
These groups are wonderful for those who are looking to make new friends and have fun, but they’re also a gateway to a new kind of challenge for the competitive spirit. Many local barbershop groups competed in the Northeastern District of Barbershop Harmony Society 2012 Fall District Convention on Friday, Oct. 19, and Saturday, Oct. 20, in Portland, Maine. In these contests, groups are given scores, usually in the form of a percentage of maximum possible points. Groups have to qualify again in the spring in order to compete in the international competition, which, in its 75th year, will be held in Toronto in July.
“We used to practice all year with two songs,” said Ruthenberg. But by the time Districts came around, they never wanted to hear those songs again, the chorus members said. Now they practice five or six songs during the season, and Ruthenberg decides which ones they’ll take to competition a few weeks before.
For the Concord Coachmen, it used to be about winning, but now it’s as much about putting on a good show. Which is why, they told me, it was important to look good and to smile.
Competing groups are graded on music (elements like melody, harmony, range, rhythm and meter), the singing itself (production of vibrant, technically accurate and skilled sound) and presentation (everything about the performance that contributes to the emotional impact on the audience).
A chorus that shows emotion in its presentation is more believable, Ruthenberg said. “Humans believe nonverbal things before verbal things; that’s why barbershop categories include presentation with equal weight to singing and music,” he said. All of the things that affect us as audience members are judged in these competitions.
On Air, a barbershop quartet associated with Nashua’s Granite Statesmen, scored 75 out of 100 at the District competition in October. The group, with Jayson McCarter singing lead, John Green tenor, Matt Kopser baritone and Kurt Boutin bass, spent the last two months “getting up to speed” with their new singer, Kopser. “We didn’t have any expectations going in — we performed about as well as we could in that moment,” Boutin said.
It was good enough for a win. In order to qualify for the international competition in July, they’ll have to score a 76 in the Spring Northeastern District competition, which covers the Canadian Atlantic provinces, Quebec, eastern New York State and New England.
“The majority of folks who are part of the Coachmen work during the day,” said Sajko, who was a high school teacher when he began singing. “But when they come into rehearsal, they leave that behind at the door. … For me, it’s like a release. It’s something I enjoy doing, to be with a bunch of people who have the same focus,” he said.
Being part of a singing group forces you to make time for something you love.
“It forces a bit of meditation on to you; it gives you a ritual, a time when you have to go, to forget about other things and just focus on producing the best sounds that you can,” said Holly Ares Snyder from the Suncook Valley Chorale, a non-auditioned group that meets weekly in Concord. Her director, Scott Lounsbury, is the same director she had in her high school chorus. One of the youngest in this chorale, she returned home after a few years of college and real life. “Sometimes you don’t even realize you need it [singing] until you don’t have it for a while ... I really needed it. It’s something that can be really valuable,” she said.
These music groups also are a way to give back, whether it’s Valentine’s Day jingles or singing at nursing homes or veterans’ homes.
And as Dave deBronkart, member of Nashua’s Granite Statesmen will attest, the music will lift you when you need it most. He wrote a book about it, Laugh, Eat and Sing Like a Pig. He stopped me before leaving the Granite Statesmen chorus to tell me his story.
“This is an extraordinary, extraordinary group of men. Five and a half years ago, I was dying of kidney cancer. These guys, who meant so much for me for a number of years, I’d drag myself, sometimes on crutches, sometimes in a wheelchair, and I would just listen to this sound,” deBronkart said. “And this guy [gesturing to Tramack] would drag me up to the front and sing, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’”
“That feeling — to hear that song, and hearing all of these men to pull me back from the edge, was really remarkable,” deBronkart said.
I made about 20 new friends at the Granite Statesmen Wednesday night practice. Within the first five minutes, I got a mini voice lesson from Loring Webster on vertical voice placement (driving your voice through a narrow air space). I made new friends in Pat and Pat Ulmen, and I got a taste of what it might be like to be a part of a singing group. It tasted like marble cake with vanilla frosting — to help ease the goodbye to a Granite Statesman moving to Colorado, they were serving cake.
The night I visited was technically an “open sing” night, so I wasn’t the only newcomer. A few singers were returning after leaves of absences — which are due to happen when real life interlaces with a singing group — and others were brand new.
And despite the tightness of the group — some members have been part of it for 50 years — the welcoming of newcomers received was extraordinary, with group introductions, and, my favorite part, a welcoming song.
We’re glad to see you here today,
To sing and laugh the night away,
We’ll barbershop till break of day,
In Granite Statesmen Way.
“People come for the music,” Tramack said, “but they stay for friends.”