Confessions of a Competitive Barbershop Singer

Growing up, I was embarrassed to be a part of this quirky family tradition. But the truth is, I love it.

Confessions of a Competitive Barbershop Singer

I’m lined up with my fellow barbershop quartet members, including my mom and my aunt, along the ramp leading to the competition stage. We’re waiting for the announcer to call our name, laughing anxiously about nothing in particular. “This is going to be fun!” we say, and we try to mean it.

My quartet, Anticipation, is competing in the Pacific Shores Region 12 female barbershop contest, against 23 other groups at the Nugget Casino Resort in Reno, Nevada. It’s our fourth competition together. You’d think we’d be used to this by now.

I hydrated relentlessly backstage, but suddenly my throat feels parched – and as I realize there’s no water nearby, panic sets in like a fog. What if I can’t hold my high hanger at the end of the uptune? What if my voice cracks in the low chorus? I picture myself on stage, making a mistake in excruciating slow-motion, undoing months of work as the judges scribble furiously, angrily, on their score sheets. I gulp, then remember that gulping is bad for the vocal cords and suppress a second one.

The lights begin to dim. The emcee walks out. I close my eyes and wonder what I wonder every year: Why am I doing this?

Ask people about barbershop music, and they’ll generally conjure a familiar image: four old men in bow-striped vests and straw hats, swaying with canes, warbling standards in earnest. Hello my baby, hello my darling, hello my ragtime gal!

The image is not completely absurd. In the nascent days of the Barbershop Harmony Society – an organization founded in 1938 that preserves and promotes barbershop music – these hallmarks were common. But in the eight decades since the organization was founded, bow-striped vests have given way to crisp suits; standards are still sung, but so are contemporary hits; and decorative canes have been banished to the unused props bin. There are men from all generations, including kids and teens and hipster 20-somethings, their mustaches fitting right in. And, yes, there are women.

I’ve known about the female barbershop organization, Sweet Adelines International, my entire life – my grandma has been a member for 50 years and counting. But as a kid, barbershop was an abstraction to me, shaded in uncoolness. When my grandma talked about her barbershop singing, I envisioned women older than I ever imagined becoming, crooning listlessly in retirement homes.

But then, when I was ten, my mom re-joined (she had been a member before I was born), and I attended my first regional contest to watch her compete with her quartet.

Left to right; Martha, who sang with my mom in her award-winning quartet; Martha’s daughter, Mary, who went on to sing with her quartet; me and my mom, Cheri. (Photo courtesy the author)

The competition stage looked like something out of Broadway: glaring spotlight, thick curtain, stage lights that shifted color for each performer. Two giant jumbotron screens displayed the action to those who couldn’t see, as if this were a sports game featuring the fearsome battle of flashy costumes and four-part harmony.

As I watched each quartet enter and exit the vast stage – all decked out in matching sequined gowns, singing in rigorously rehearsed synchronicity and displaying carefully planned choreography moves – I felt my stomach drop. I couldn’t fathom my shy mother, who often broke out into an anxiety rash during social gatherings, being so openly expressive in front of hundreds of people. Would her voice quiver? Would her eyes open wide, like a deer in the spotlight? Would she choke?

From the moment she stepped on stage, I knew I didn’t need to worry. She was not just comfortable, but confident: stride brisk, smile wide, voice perfectly controlled. As the quartet finished their ballad with a hushed “Smile my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear/or else I shall be melancholy too,” the arena became pin-drop silent, then erupted into rapturous applause.

The experience was, in a word, thrilling – especially once the quartet ended up taking second place, turning my mom into, for all intents and purposes, a star.

Me with my teenage barbershop quartet Hot Commodity and my grandma (middle), after we won a regional event for youth quartets. (Photo courtesy the author)

I began attending all my mom’s shows and contests, reveling in the indescribable delectation of performing and competing. But my own entry into the organization would take more time. My voice lacked confidence, as did I, and the stage seemed far too enormous to fill with my meager presence. I started, then, with a small step: by attending a rehearsal with my mom and grandma for the Sacramento Valley Chorus at age 12, where I could gain confidence alongside 60 women.

Stepping onto the risers, I felt timid and awkward – and then the music began. As the chorus sang their warm-up, starting on one unison note before breaking away into four-part harmony, I felt my voice become a part of something bigger, something profound even, and my nerves dissipated. I didn’t need to fill a stage; I just needed, for now, to submit my voice to this electrifying sound.

I joined the next week, quavering through an audition that I nonetheless passed, wondering if they’d think I was any good, and feeling the pressure of being the daughter of a regional star.

I became the youngest-ever person to sing with the chorus, crooning alongside women mostly in their 40s to 80s, singing and dancing and jazz hands-ing with abandon. The director, Patty, was all fire-red hair and frothy energy. She sang in a quartet with my grandma, and preferred songs that allowed her to coo and shimmy lustily. Hit me with a hot note, and watch me…bounce!

Backstage at the contest, she would quiet her voice down to a whisper, unusual for her, and tell us to focus. Then she’d talk about how hard we’d worked and how proud she was and to remember why we did this. “Let’s go!” she’d say, and we would.

“No way,” I told my mom, firmly, “am I doing that.”

We were driving home from chorus rehearsal, where we’d been preparing for an upcoming show. After receiving sheet music to one of the songs we’d be singing, “Puppy Love,” we were informed that this would be a number done in character – as puppies. I was 15.

As everyone around me laughed raucously, we were all handed puppy dog ears to wear. Through the course of the song, we were told, we’d be pausing to bark, pant and lick our “paws.” “The audience will love this!” we were told, and people seemed to agree.

I stood in horror on the risers, my own giggles noticeably more nervous than the easy laughter coming from everyone else. When we were told to bark, I let out a feeble, single “woof,” then stayed silent, praying for the animal-noise cacophony to die down.

Occasionally at chorus rehearsal, I would humor the morbid fantasy of my classmates watching me on a hidden camera. This time, the very thought, however fantastical, made me queasy. As the chorus squealed in delight, I imagined myself sinking below the risers, into the floor, until I was no longer in the room at all.

On the drive home, clearly moved by the definitiveness of my plea, my mother agreed: I did not have to perform that song. She told my grandma, who told Patty, and I was officially off the hook. For that number, I’d retreat to the audience to watch, though my gaze would likely be cast toward my feet.

As a teen singing barbershop, this is how it went. When I stood on the risers, I was one of them. When I stepped off, I wouldn’t be caught dead with them.

Later in high school, I was featured as a Student Scholar of the Week by the local news station. I was nominated by a chorus member, and naturally, the producer wanted to feature my barbershop singing prominently. When a cameraperson attended our show to get footage, I tried my best to be completely unmemorable, hoping the film would be too boring to use. Instead, when the segment aired a couple weeks later, the barbershop footage was featured conspicuously. There I was, on TV screens across the greater Sacramento area, belting “A Hot Time in the Old Town” while wearing a vest and top hat bedazzled with hot pink sequins. (Thank God I’d sat out “Puppy Love.”) Even my sweet best friend, upon watching the show, gently admitted, “Yeah, that was a little weird.”

So why, in the sweltering heat of teen insecurity, did I continue? The answer is simple: because I loved it.

I loved the close-harmony chords, and singing earnest ballads about love in hushed tones, and doing choreography in the front row, spinning and kicking and lifting my hand to the sky at the close of a rollicking uptune.

I loved watching the best of the best, my idols, singing flawlessly in Miss America-style gowns. My all-time favorite, hands-down, was Panache; one year, at an international competition, I got to take my picture with them, and soon after, I received a blown-up copy of the image from my grandma as a birthday present. Like all champions, the photo featured Panache wearing glittering crowns – in Sweet Adelines, international champions become “Queens of Harmony” and are adorned with special tiaras. It’s extraordinarily silly. I hung the photo in my room.

Me, second from the left, singing with Hot Commodity. (Photo courtesy of author)

Mostly, I loved the women I sang with, even if they sometimes offended my delicate teenage sensibilities. There was Patty, of course, who more than a director was a close family friend, and played a critical role in helping my grandma through the death of my grandfather. And Carol, who liked to be wheeled around at contests on a luggage cart and often told the story of opening the door naked and belting “ta-dah!” to who she thought would be a Sweet Adeline, only to discover it was the postman. And Mary Alice, who told bawdy jokes in her guttural bass voice, and could in later years be found partying until the morning hours at regional events with her pacemaker in tow.

Back at school, I was worrying about lunch-table politics and votes for prom queen and king. I worried about being liked, about being cool, about exhibiting the easy confidence and beguiling beauty of the popular girls, who talked about drinking and caffeine pills and kissing the hot guys from water polo.

Sweet Adelines, though? They didn’t give a shit who saw them barking their way through “Puppy Love,” or kazooing between swigs of wine, or waltzing into a restaurant in matching glittery outfits, or answering the door buck naked. They didn’t worry, because they were having too much damn fun.

It was refreshing.

When I wasn’t singing with the chorus, I was following my mom’s quartet around to competitions and events and coaching sessions, enjoying her growing stardom – limited in relative scope, yes, but bright nonetheless.

The year after my mom’s quartet placed second at regional, they won. Soon they were at international, singing alongside other regional champions, placing in the top five. The scale of competition at international events was considerably grander; 10,000 people would come to watch quartets sing in arenas that otherwise hosted A-list concerts. Webcasters broadcast the event to thousands more, dissecting song choices and dynamics with the intensity of ESPN hosts. At the end of the contest, the announcements resembled that of a beauty pageant, as quartets lined up on risers and were called down to receive their medals, starting with tenth and ending with first and those coveted crowns.

I wanted to be like my mom: famous, celebrated, the best of the best. And I felt sure there was no way I could be. This is not to say I wasn’t good – I had, and have, a perfectly nice and often accurate voice. But to make the big leagues required something more. It required the kind of confident, booming sound that made an audience rapt, and the poise to, as we’re told is the ultimate goal, “transcend technique.” I was the equivalent of a competitive amateur athlete – with a nice but slightly thin voice, mostly good but at times awkward stage presence and occasional flat notes – which is completely commendable. I just wasn’t an Olympian.

Still, I thought, maybe I could become one someday. And so, at age 16, I joined a quartet with other teens (there were a handful in the region), leaving the comfort of a large chorus to sing my part on its own. The transition was exhilarating, but difficult: every flat note, every phrase ending deflated by poor breath support, every shaky moment… the audience would hear it. This was daunting in a way I hadn’t fully anticipated.

My first quartet contest was one specifically designed for youth groups, and like any progeny of (albeit pseudo) celebrity, I knew there would be expectations of my success. When I walked out on stage, I wouldn’t just be me; I would be my mother’s daughter, a direct reflection of her talents and ambitions and dreams.

Backstage, I closed my eyes and thought seriously about leaving, never to return again. Instead, I faked confidence as I walked out on stage, and willed myself to focus on the joy of performing. I messed up here and there, but overall, we did a perfectly good job, and by the time we’d exited to resounding applause, I felt confident that I wanted to compete more. We placed first – there was one other quartet – and would go on to amateur success.

My quartet Anticipation during the 2017 Sweet Adelines International-Pacific Shores Region 12 female barbershop contest in Reno, Nevada. (Photo courtesy of Read Photography)

Once I went off to college, I sang barbershop for only one more year, as I carved out independence in the messy way college students do, at frat parties and in dorm rooms.

Things changed for my mom too. Her quartet broke up. They’d come so close to winning so many times, but they could never get the gold, their own hopes dashed and expectations unmet.

I graduated. I moved to Boston for grad school. And then one day, after returning home to California, we looked at each other and answered the question we had always basically known would be answered: We wanted to sing together in a quartet. Eventually, my aunt, who hadn’t sung barbershop in 30 years, joined too.

It’s been six years since we all started singing together, and our quartet hasn’t come close to achieving what my mom’s former quartet did – though we’ve done better than I ever had before, placing often in the top five at regional. But even as I prod and check and make extra sure, my mom swears that’s O.K. She wants to be competitive, of course, but this? Singing with family? It matters more.

“Contestant number seven… Anticipation!”

We walk out on stage, and my body is gone; all that’s left of me is adrenaline, floating through the ether where my corporeal being once was. I think about what our coach told me: “Keep your mouth open as you smile! Own the stage! Tell the audience and judges that you’re here to win!”

We step back to begin.

Over the course of six minutes, I register two single moments: running out of breath once in the ballad and the thrill of the last chord locking.

As we exit the stage, and for the next five hours as we wait for the competition to end, I wonder whether we did enough to achieve our goal. Last year, we got sixth; this year, we’d love to get something like third, a noticeable move up in position and score. Did we do it? Were we good enough? Are we better than all these other quartets that have also been working so hard?

Finally, it’s time to head back on stage for the announcements. At regional, they count backwards from fifth place, so the reveal comes quick.

“The fifth-place quartet, with a score of 559… Anticipation!”

Fifth – it’s better than sixth. But it’s not exactly what we coveted. Still, it’s a medal, and we’re grateful for that.

The next night, we end regional as we always do: with wine-fueled singing until the early hours. We head to a hotel suite, along with my mom’s former quartet members, now our coaches, and my grandma, and some members of the chorus I sang with all those years ago. At first, the performing is orderly, but before long, the scene is utter chaos. Everyone is jumping up to drunkenly belt songs they know kind of, if at all. As always, I pity anyone in adjacent hotel rooms who aren’t barbershoppers (in the organization, we call them “civilians”).

Finally, around two in the morning, I grab my mom and aunt and grandma for a rendition of “How We Sang Today,” which Sweet Adelines sing at the end of every organizational event. As I wrap my arms around their backs and croon, with a complete lack of irony or cynicism, I’m glad we laughed! I’m glad we loved! I’m glad we sang today!