Going all the way back to the 1940s, barbershop-style singing has been a revered tradition in music. Comprised of 12 singers and chapter coach and JMU alumnus Lexington Bowler, the Harrisonburg Harmonizers are fighting to keep the barbershop tradition alive in Harrisonburg.
The 12 men who make up the chorus hail from all over the Shenandoah area to sing and learn together, some of whom are completely new to singing. Several members call Harrisonburg home, but some commute every Monday to come to the weekly rehearsals held at Providence Baptist Church. A few make the drive from places such as Staunton and Charlottesville.
“We get guys who are like ‘I’ve never sung before in my life,’ or we get guys who, you know, are like me, who are like, ‘I have a big musical background and I’ve been singing forever,'” Bowler said. “Everybody’s from different walks of life.”
The men of the Harrisonburg Harmonizers aren’t alone in their goal to spread their art. The group is one branch of a much larger organization known as the Barbershop Harmony Society. With chapters all over the U.S. and Canada, including several locations in Virginia, the society operates with the goal of keeping barbershop music alive all over the world.
Along with performances by the individual chapters, the society holds an international competition each year. Chapters can choose to compete with each other and attempt to move through the ranks of regionals, states, nationals and internationals. The society itself was founded about 80 years ago in Oklahoma.
“It was just a group of guys who liked to get together and sing,” Scott Price, chapter president, said. “It just kept growing and spreading until where now, it’s an international organization.”
Sharing the art of barbershop music with its community is the defining factor that brings the Harrisonburg Harmonizers together. Jim Bell is one of the longest standing chapter members, having been with the organization for eight years. To him, sharing joy with others through the music is the simple goal.
“We have a good fellowship, and we have a lot of fun together,” Bell said. “And we do, I believe, a lot of good service for the community and the places we sing for a lot of people who are shut in or elderly. So, we just have a real joy in doing that for others.”
The members of the Harrisonburg Harmonizers also get to share the joy of singing with each other as they grow and progress both individually and as a group. For Marcelo Flores, another chapter member, one of the beauties of barbershop music is that each individual singer doesn’t have to have an amazing voice. Anybody with an interest can participate in the music-making.
“You can have people that have okay voices by themselves, but you put it all together and the result is, you know, it sounds kind of cliche, but you’re a part of something greater than the sum of all parts,” Flores said.
The group performs publicly a number of times throughout the year, with the most visible of those being its Singing Valentines performances, which allow people to rent a quartet to serenade someone special. In addition to those performances, the group performs as an entire chorus at various locations through Harrisonburg.
The majority of the group’s performances is Christmas shows, most often held at retirement homes and other nonprofit organizations.
“We’d like to get involved in doing more performances,” Bell said. “We’ve done different types of things in the past for charities, for various civic organizations, for other nonprofit groups, and festivals. So, anything that opens up for us, we try to be available.”
Price says they frequently have farmers markets “on the books” as well as Bridgewater’s summer concert series and national anthems at local baseball games. Adding to those events, the chapter has several visions for the future.
“We are wanting to make our repertoire more appealing to a wider audience so that we can sing not just on Christmas and Singing Valentines and stuff,” Price said. “But something that an organization, you know, [we could] come do, like, a fifteen-minute performance somewhere at a civic organization, or a frat house, or a sorority or something like that.”
Presenting material from traditional barbershop repertoire to more modern songs, the Harrisonburg Harmonizers put on performances with the simple goal of brightening the days of people in the community.
“We sing, we serve, no strings attached,” Price said.
Contact Jake Conley at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.