Sweet soul music
Glenda Lloyd with the Brindabella Chorus at the Black Mountain School. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
The Sweet Adelines are an international women’s barbershop organisation. Barbershop usually refers to four people singing together, without accompaniment. Think striped waistcoats, think Ted’s band from the television series Scrubs.
But these ladies have opted for sequins over boater hats and they are ready to raise the roof as they compete for the title of best in Australia.
‘‘It’s like Glee for grown-ups,’’ says barbershop devotee Glenda Lloyd, with genuine delight.
The local IT worker first encountered barbershop two decades ago, as a first-year student at the University of Canberra. She responded to an advertisement for singers in the newspaper, not really knowing what it would involve, but sensing that barbershop might be fun.
Barbershop can be sung in quartets, or in choruses with the group divided into four parts. When Lloyd first heard the local chorus burst into song, it was the start of a lifelong passion.
‘‘I loved the close harmonies, the ways the voices interlocked and I loved the performance aspect of it,’’ she says.
Nearly any song can be arranged for barbershop, which is part of its appeal. Chorus and quartets can sing anything from old 1930s favourites to modern pop songs, and there are now 1300 Sweet Adelines members in Australia.
But soon after Lloyd joined up, the Canberra chorus decided to enter a competition and could only compete in single-gender groups. With 30 men and only six women involved, it became obvious that there wasn’t a division that would suit, so Lloyd decided to start her own, women’s-only chorus.
It took a while to get off the ground, as some of the women from the original chorus dropped out and for a while attendance really dwindled.
‘‘It was very hard, as you can imagine, to run a four-part harmony with two people,’’ Lloyd says with a laugh.
But eventually more women started to get on board, and now Canberra’s Brindabella Chorus is a real force to be reckoned with in the barbershop world.
Lloyd still acts as musical director and says that her singers range in age from 20 to 76, and that all different types of people, from homemakers to very senior public servants are involved. ‘‘I have no idea what I’d do with my time if I wasn’t running this chorus,’’ she says.
Barbershop started in the second half of the 19th century, when African-American men would gather in barbershops or on street corners to sing in harmony. Then there was a 20th-century revival, when fans of the singing style fought to stop it from dying out altogether.
Although the Sweet Adelines have chapters in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, the US remains the home of barbershop singing. However, Sweet Adelines Australia spokeswoman Cathy Rainey says the art form is growing in the country for both sexes.
Lloyd has travelled all over the world with barbershop and she says wherever she is, she tries to visit the local barbershop chorus. Friendships are formed across borders, too, and she says that if she were ever in trouble overseas, she would not hesitate to contact someone from the local barbershop community, confident that they would offer their help.
Rainey has also been involved in barbershop for more than 20 years. She says that barbershop offers participants a lot more than just the chance to get together and sing – although of course enjoying the music is an important part of it all.
‘‘You begin loving the sound of four-part harmonies but you end of making a lot of friendships,’’ she says.
Meanwhile, Rainey says that she has seen many women arrive at rehearsal feeling shy about singing in public, but that they eventually gain a great deal of confidence from learning to perform.
‘‘It’s a new lease on life,’’ she says.
Barbershop really is a performance, too, which many people say sets it apart from traditional choirs.
Every song has choreographed moves and the Sweet Adelines favour bright, glittery costumes.
At their annual convention, held in Canberra this weekend, there will be sectional competitions for the 20 quartets and 36 choruses of various sizes from all over Australia – from Wagga Wagga, Cairns and Adelaide, to Busselton in Western Australia.
All will be vying for the chance to progress to the international stage, held in Denver, Colorado later this year.
Rainey says while the basic requirements of barbershop are to be able to sing in tune, and to hold part of the harmony when others are doing something different, when it comes to competition time judges look for the full package, such as excellent vocal production and great delivery.
‘‘With the best, you don’t even notice how good they are, you just notice how well they’re selling the songs,’’ she says.
Lloyd says that while Brindabella Chorus is now large enough to require auditions, a big part of being musical director is teaching singing and coaching women to be their best. Learning to sing in harmony can take practise.
‘‘It’s not the easiest thing, it is a hard thing,’’ she says.
‘‘But it is accessible to ordinary people, it’s not American Idol.’’
Barbershop is also a highly portable art form, as no equipment is required, so perhaps Canberrans should not be alarmed at any women spontaneously bursting into song around town this weekend.
‘‘You get four people, and we carry a tuning fork, and away we go,’’ Lloyd says.
And she, for one, could barely be any more excited.
‘‘It’s fun to watch, fun to be in and addictive; barbershop is my life,’’ she says.