When I am not fixing computer problems and creating databases, one of my hobbies is singing. For the past four years I have been singing with a chorus called the Great Northern Union (GNU for short).

GNU is a chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, (BHS or called “the Society” by members) a 74-year-old organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of barbershop genre of a-capella singing. The organization was originally called the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America or SPEBSQSA, a playful jab at the Roosevelt-era “alphabet soup” of government programs being implemented at the time of the BHS founding.

Here’s a little background.

When people think of barbershop quartets, they usually think of older men in straw boater hats, suspenders, and red vests singing off-key saccharine, old-fashioned love songs about women named Ethel, Mabel, and Francine, and unwarranted reminiscing about Dixie. There is still an element of this in the Society, but my chorus is one of many successfully working to lower the average age of the membership.

Barbershop music is defined by a few basic characteristics: the intense use of seven-chords following the circle of fifths, glissandos (called “swipes” in the Society), very close harmonization by the upper three voices, significant voice crossing by the middle two voices, and crowd-pleasing demonstrations of vocal virtuosity in the form of very accurate pitch, vocal range, dynamics, breath support.

Because barbershop singers love a happy crowd, we can never just end a song at the regular end. Like Beethoven and other romantic composers, we like to tack on a bit of showmanship at the end of a piece to give it a “proper” ending. These portions of the songs are called tags and have become an art form in and of themselves.  An excellent example of the latter is a tag performed here as a multi-track recording by a couple of well-known Society quartet singers.

Close harmonies can sound awesome when done well, and really painful when done poorly. One of the ways that the Society promotes virtuosity (and keeps barbershop from being painful to hear), is to hold division, district and international competitions every year for both quartets and choruses. A panel of well-trained judges evaluate the performances on characteristics such as showmanship, vocal skill, technique, accuracy, musical interpretation, and adherence to the “barbershop style”. The 2010 Quartet Champions, Storm Front, gave a great example of both the traditional goofiness associated with barbershop as well as the virtuosity that embodies a gold-medal quartet performance.

A heading to separate the background from the specifics.

The GNU has been the Land-o-Lakes district champion 18 times since its founding in 1986, and has been a medalist in the International competition nine times including two silvers and two third-place bronzes (you also get bronze for 4th and 5th place).

In a competition a chorus usually sings two pieces: a lively “up-tune” that demonstrates the showmanship of the chorus with lots of choreography and powerful chords; and a ballad that shows the chorus’ mastery of harmonic nuance, dynamic range, and passion.

Our “up-tune” this year and last year was a frenetic comic medley with about 32 different songs, tear-away false vests, and LED-lit base vests and props. For copyright reasons our performance would be too expensive to publish. You can watch our ballad performance from last year (I’m not visible in this because the cameras clipped the chorus on the edges–I stand on the right side (stage left)).

I am not a very competitive person by nature, but one of the benefits of this competition is that we become better singers and performers. There are few experiences as joyfully transcendent as singing a well-written piece of music in close harmony with 100-plus other men in front of an audience of over 6000 other singers.

Last year we performed in Kansas City, MO and came within five points out of 3000 of winning the gold medal. It was a disappointment and a motivation to do even better this year in Portland.

This year we won our second silver medal and the highest score we’ve ever received in a competition. The winners were the excellent Ambassadors of Harmony,  three-time gold medalists out of St. Charles, MO. You can view their performance of 76 Trombones, a record-breaking gold medal up-tune at the 2009 International Competition in Anaheim, CA .

Our next performance will be part of a free barbershop concert at Como Park on Tuesday, August 14th starting at 7 PM.