Twenty-seven years ago, Jack Watters was in Security Square Mall in Woodlawn waiting for his wife when he heard harmonizing voices singing barbershop music.
The Heart of Maryland Chorus was practicing in a meeting room for a performance at the mall, and Watters - always intrigued by the a cappella music style - joined in. The group then invited him to perform with them.
He agreed, forgetting about his wife, Rusty.
"I'm in the middle of this group singing, when my wife looks up and sees me," said Watters, of Sykesville.
"I was bitten by the bug and have been with it ever since."
Since then, Watters and the rest of the group - one of about 800 choruses of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America - have been trying to preserve the style of music that they are afraid will become forgotten as music continues to progress or decline, depending on how you look at it.
"You don't see this type of harmony in most other kinds of singing," said Watters, the chorus' vice president of music for the Patapsco Valley chapter.
"I think there's so much musical heritage we have that's slipping away."
In an attempt to spread their harmony - and raise money - the Patapsco Valley chapter is offering singing valentines for a ninth year. On Feb. 13 and 14, quartets will deliver the valentines in Howard County, Baltimore and western Baltimore County.
"It's just probably the biggest kick we get from anything we do during the year," said Leon Rose, the group's vice president for marketing.
Quartets dressed in formal costumes will perform love songs, such as "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" or "Heart of My Heart," to people in the workplace and homes. The singers will present the recipient with a long-stemmed rose.
The nonprofit group charges $40 for singing valentines and $50 for orders received after Feb. 10. Typically, the group takes about 40 to 60 orders, raising $2,000 to $3,000, Rose said.
The chapter is one of 13 in the state that belongs to the Heart of Maryland Chorus. The chapter, which has about 80 members ranging in age from 18 to 87, uses some of the proceeds from the singing valentines to help balance its annual budget. The money is used for costumes, music retreats or transportation to performances, Rose said.
Variety of locales
The chorus performs at a variety of locales, including nursing homes and fraternal organizations, and it has sung the national anthem at Baltimore Orioles games.
At least half of the money raised from the singing valentines will go toward the chapter's Young Men in Harmony program, a national effort to encourage youths to sing barbershop music, Rose said.
For the past five years, the local chorus has been working with Howard County high schools to help bring barbershop music to younger generations.
"We don't want to see barbershop die as a form of musical Americana," said Rose, a Columbia resident.
"Kids today have very little awareness of this type of music, particularly music that's related to the male segment of the population."
A barbershop group has thrived at River Hill High School under the Young Men in Harmony program.
The chorus has paid for some of the high school group's music, costumes and tuition to attend the Harmony College East music program at Salisbury University, said Betsy Graff, the school's choral director.
The high school became involved with the chorus a few years ago when a student quartet sang before one of the chorus' performances. After the high school group's numbers, chorus members coached them that night and took them onstage to perform with the chorus during its concert.
The high school quartet has since joined the chorus at a number of performances.
"They just absolutely lit a fire under these guys," Graff said.
She said the mentoring has allowed the students to learn the joy of singing barbershop music, which is not an easy style to learn.
"There's an element of camaraderie in this," Graff said.
"It's special; it's unique to the form of the music."
Chorus members hope the students' interest in the music will continue to grow as the elder singers preserve songs of the past, as well as adapt to more recent songs to keep barbershop music alive.
"We realized for us to continue, we had to get younger people involved and interested in this kind of music," Watters said.
Reservations for singing valentines: 410-788-4595 or 410-730-5359 no later than Feb. 12. Orders may be accepted after that date, depending on quartet availability.