Music keeps female barbershop group in harmony

NEIGHBORS

August 24, 2004|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE WORD barbershop, as it applies to music, conjures images of men in pinstriped vests and four-part harmonies.

That's not so for the Harbor City Music Company Show Chorus - a barbershop choral group of 80 women, ranging from their 20s to 80s.

The chorus, a chapter of Sweet Adelines, sings everything from Broadway tunes to pop music - all a cappella and yes, in traditional, four-part harmony.

Sweet Adelines, an international organization of 30,000 women, has 600 registered choruses. There are choruses in all 50 states, as well as Australia, Finland, Germany, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and other countries.

Harbor City - the result of a merger of Elkridge and Towson Valley choruses five years ago - hopes to attract singers from Howard County, a central location for members who come from as far away as Frederick, Salisbury and Northern Virginia. The chorus meets in Brooklyn Park, but it is looking for a meeting place in Howard County.

The group has won regional competitions for Sweet Adelines for the past five years. In October, Harbor City will compete in an international competition in Indiana, where the chorus expects to perform for an audience of 10,000 people.

"I love the whole energy of it," said Debbie Koster of Kings Contrivance, who has been singing with the chorus for 12 years and is its choreographer. "I love to go out and capture the audience's attention and draw them in. Next thing you know, they're standing up for you."

Singing barbershop is a family affair for some members.

"My mother started a chapter [of Sweet Adelines] in Catonsville in 1961," said Jackie Hopwood of Harper's Choice, who has been singing baritone for 32 years. "I used to go with her when I was about 15 and try to harmonize, but I wasn't old enough. Finally, when I was 21, I began to sing with the group."

The Harbor City chorus dresses casually, with black pants, white shirts and linen jackets, but the group goes all out for international competitions.

At the 2002 international competition in Nashville, Tenn., the chorus' theme was cats; all 80 women wore tuxedos and cat makeup.

The music matched the costumes, with songs such as Stray Cat Strut. Choreographed movements (at times, like those of alley cats) gave a wonderful effect to the whole event, said chorus director Michael Gellert of Severna Park.

Gellert, who started singing barbershop with his uncles as a child and went on to study music education at Towson University, became involved with Harbor City through his wife, Marianna, who has been singing baritone for 23 years. When the director of the Elkridge chorus retired, Marianna Gellert suggested to her husband that he should give it a shot.

"I fully thought I would be the interim director," Michael Gellert said. "But 14 years later, I am still here."

The Sweet Adelines was established in the summer of 1945 in Tulsa, Okla. The organization was founded by Edna Mae Anderson and other women whose husbands were also members of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America. Anderson brought a few of the women together in her home, and the group grew from there.

Barbershop is vocal harmony produced by four parts - lead, tenor, baritone and bass.

"What makes barbershop exciting is the fun of making music without instruments," Michael Gellert said. "It's the expressiveness and texture of the human voice. It's incredible when the chords ring - four notes sung together so well, it creates other notes."

For some members, the camaraderie is as important as the music. Although the Catonsville chapter of Sweet Adelines was disbanded more than 30 years ago, its members still keep in touch.

"It was a great outlet for me when my children were little," said charter member Gitty Hopwood, Jackie Hopwood's mother. "It started very small. My neighbor invited me to sing; the practice was held in her basement. I said I couldn't sing. She said, `Everyone can sing.' So I tried it. I started out as lead and ended up as bass. ... Some of us still get together for lunch every couple of months. And if we are in a room were we can do it, we try to sing."

"I used to sing in a barbershop quartet with my sister in Indiana," said Becky Copeland of Timonium, who has been singing bass for 11 years and is Harbor City's public relations manager. "Singing with this group brings back a lot of warm memories for me. Me and my sister always say that if she lived closer, she would sing with us."

"I just love singing in a group. It has no age limit," said Sally Kelly of Scaggsville, who has been singing lead for 19 years. "There are a lot of things you stop doing as you get older. Barbershop brings people of all ages together. People from different generations all have the music in common and become friends."

The music keeps them together.

"The sound just resonates; the chords just ring," Koster said. "Even on days you don't feel like going, you walk out feeling uplifted."

At this year's competition in Indianapolis, the chorus' theme will be Lucille Ball. Singers will wear red wigs and polka dot dresses, and sing songs dedicated to the famous redhead.

When not competing, the group performs in the community and offers singing telegrams for all occasions.

"You don't have to have any formal training to become a member. We will work with you," Copeland said.

Information: Becky Copeland, 410-561-0590, or www. harborcitymusiccompany.org.

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