Where wise men and guys all harmonize

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October 20, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

Janet Gilbert At the dress rehearsal for Sunday's Annual Concert of the Heart of Maryland Chorus, 40 men ranging in age from 14 to 79 suddenly break into what can best be described as a "vocal raspberry." The men's lips are pursed forward comically, vibrating a tone in perfect four-part harmony.

"That's bubbling," explains Riley Nichols, 14, a tenor from Hammond High School who will be performing in the show with his quartet, Chopper 4.

Kevin King, music director of the barbershop choral group since 1988, elaborates on the technique. "I learned it in college from one of my voice teachers. It reminds them to support the tone."

King, 49, illustrates by singing a phrase from "Silent Night," and it's lovely: on pitch, perfect rhythm, beautiful tone. He sings it again, and the phrase is instantly fuller and richer, not merely louder.

"You know how basketball players might wear weights on their ankles [when working out]?" King says. "When they take them off they feel like they can fly. It's all about muscle resistance."

These are the kinds of things that the members of the Patapsco Valley Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society put into practice at their weekly Tuesday night rehearsals in Catonsville.

"It's like a big group voice lesson," King said.

Ellicott City resident Tom Nisbet, 42, came to the group by chance. He happened to mention to a neighbor that he enjoyed singing barbershop in high school. The neighbor knew someone in the society, and the connection was made. Nisbet sings bass and belongs to a quartet called 3 Wise Men with tenor George Korch, 53; lead Jeff Whall, 52; and baritone Joe Chilcoat, 53.

Chilcoat explains the group's name: "We just counted how many [wise men] there were in the group."

"It's truth in advertising," Nisbet says.

Because Columbia resident Korch is traveling on business, the quartet recruited another wise guy for Sunday's show from the chorus, Cloverly Elementary School music teacher and tenor Kris Zinkievich, 41.

3 Wise Men has been singing together for about a year, and entered its first competition in June in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at the Western Division Contest of the Mid-Atlantic District.

"It's amazing how much we've learned singing in a quartet," Nisbet says. There are technique issues, such as simultaneously "turning the diphthong" or singing a vowel the same way to achieve a blend.

3 Wise Men attended Harmony College East at Salisbury University two weeks after the competition. Harmony College, put on by the Mid-Atlantic District of the Barbershop Harmony Society, brings vocal coaches, arrangers, choreographers, and educators together for intensive singing, learning and fun.

This year, the Patapsco Valley chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society sponsored three students from Hammond High School and their choral director, Brett Rankin, to attend Harmony College.

Tim Buell, 47, newly elected Vice President of the chapter's "Youth in Harmony" organization, says he was a chaperone on a Hammond High School music trip with his daughter when he first got to know the boys. He invited them to attend the chorus' rehearsals.

Dick Powell, 62, president of the Patapsco Valley Chapter, says, "They [the Hammond students] represent what we are all about. We offer our time, talent, resources, so that as they move through life, they will be able to keep music alive, because the things that give meaning and substance to life are the artistic things."

Bass Neil Lagola, 17, says, "What pulls you in [to barbershop singing] is you hear all the notes and it sounds absolutely gorgeous."

Ricky Wise, 15, who sings lead, says said he enjoys it because, "it's much more free with tempo, rhythm. With madrigals, you have to stick note-to-note."

Baritone Bill Rose, 17, has played the cello for eight years and only recently took up singing. "With classical music, what you see on the page is what you're supposed to do," he says. "Here, the music is more of a guideline."

Riley Nichols, a freshman at Hammond and the new tenor in the group, says barbershop singing "is a lot harder than the normal style." In barbershop, a tenor sings a harmony over the lead or melody line.

Brett Rankin, Hammond High School choral director, said the boys' barbershop group has inspired other students. "My whole idea was to get more guys involved," he says. "When these guys practice at lunch, kids come around to watch. We've more than doubled our groups this year."

Rankin enjoyed the workshops at Harmony College, and said his students learned new techniques, such as how to make chords ring. But they also gained other valuable life skills.

"These kids can take their art, and be of service to the community," Rankin says. "Through their music, they can learn to give something back. You never know at a concert who in an audience is going to need that message [from your music]. You can touch a lot of people."

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