Barbershop outreach

The key to barbershop youth outreach is finding a constructive way that makes the style not only approachable but desirable.

A vocal style that has taken youth by storm is the "collegiate a cappella" style, which many find appealing for its solo-driven nature and flexibility in application. For a given cover song, the music "arranger" can pull from practically any genre, past or present. This makes it fairly easy to promote and convince without much effort -- you already know what it is and how it's done before you even hear it.

Barbershop is tricky. It's much deeper and richer in historical roots and music theory, so it's no surprise that the easiest way to explain it has traditionally been to just "sing a tag". Factor in the polished rules, established society, its musical proselytes, and it can seem daunting and far too structured at first glance, resulting in the stigma that surrounds the art form.

For so long, I've looked toward collegiate a cappella with disdain, believing it lures potential singers away to a simpler style focused on all the wrong elements. But it occurs to me, that this other style accomplishes exactly what it intends to do, and we can use that to our advantage. Collegiate a cappella aims to faithfully recreate a song using the voice as instruments, whereas barbershop aims to capture the spirit of a song and enhance it using the distinctive elements of its style. They're not actually opposing forces, and they can work together.

Perhaps the Barbershop Harmony Society could use quartets in outreach that perform songs -- initially sung in the typical solo-accompaniment collegiate a cappella style -- then transformed with the richer harmonies and homophonic texture found in barbershop. Anyone focused on that singular stardom can immediately witness how a quartet can make everyone a star together, how the group is stronger than any individual member. Not only would this add a level of accessibility, but the noticeable contrast could promote barbershop simply for what more it offers and the ease by which it offers it. Of course, you could still throw in a polecat and a blockbuster song.

In the end, I think we forget that barbershop is a simple style that we've enhanced it over the years. Like collegiate a cappella, it started off with woodshedding, but like other genres, it has evolved into so much more. Even with all of its rules and structures, at its core, it utilizes four-part harmony that isn't strictly choral (it is, after all, a style, not a genre). Yet it possesses other elements by consequence, those that actually make it easier to grasp, from the sound of individual parts to the overtones it produces as a whole.

We know a simple tag can serve as the gateway for singing barbershop music. But this approach could convince others to sing music using barbershop. Introducing others to the fundamentals and what they can do with it -- as is the spirit of singing a tag -- will make them come back to the one place they can learn more: the Barbershop Harmony Society. And when they come back, you've succeeded in your outreach.

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