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Volume 20 Issue 8 - May 2015

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  • Choir
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  • Choral
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Beat by Beat | Choral

Beat by Beat | Choral SceneThe Naked VoiceBENJAMIN STEINThe human voice is an astonishingly versatile instrument, capableof an infinite variety of tones, timbres and inflections. Somethingprimal in us is touched by the extremes of range in the soundof a coloratura soprano or a basso profundo; the virtuoso melismatictechnique of a Hindustani or R&B soloist; the mysterious, elusiveharmonies of Tibetan and Tuvan throat singing; and the street-corner,sandpaper tones of Tom Waits, Billie Holiday and Joe Turner.We have an inexhaustible fascination with vocal music. Historicaldocuments about music that ignore technical and artistic questionsoften go into great detail about the sound of voices. Today’s recordingindustry is centred around the sound of the human voice, and ourability to mechanically engineer and manipulate sound has reachedan astonishing level of ease and complexity. Paradoxically our interestin music’s most basic expression, unaccompanied or a cappellasinging, is unabated and may actually be increasing.East York Barbershoppers: The awareness of tuning necessary toexecute a cappella music, unsupported by instruments, can be a challengeeven to experienced vocalists. In April I had the pleasure ofattending a rehearsal of the East York Barbershoppers, in preparationfor their May 23 concert. This event celebrates the group’s 65th year,which makes them one of the longest-running ensembles in the city.For more information see eybs.caBarbershop singing is an internationally popular a cappella genreof vocal music. It is notable not only for its particular nature – closeharmony singing by male or female ensembles centred around (butnot limited to) Anglo-American parlour song of the 19th and 20thcenturies – but also for the rehearsal process that trains singers tolisten and harmonize, and the continuing vitality of the art form allover the world. The USA-based Barbershop Harmony Society hasroughly 25,000 members internationally, with chapters from Swedento South Africa to New Zealand. Continuing to flourish without theaid of mainstream commercial promotion or institutional instruction,Barbershop has managed to sustain itself in the face of neglect onmany fronts.The East York Barbershoppers have have an ongoing lease agreementwith several levels of government that allows them to rehearseregularly in Harmony Hall, 2 Gower St., a community space nearDawes Rd. in what, pre-amalgamation, was called East York. Therehearsals take place in the gym/theatre space on the main floor,but downstairs there is the specially named Quartet Room for smallensemble rehearsals and the President’s Room, a wonderful historicalspace filled with pictures, trophies and medals that attest to thegroup’s ongoing presence within the community.Chatting with some members of the EYB prior to the rehearsal,I am regaled with an intriguing mixture of historical and technicalknowledge. Ron Whiteside is a baritone who joined the EYB in 2000East York Barbershoppersand took his own ensemble, the Scarborough Dukes of Harmony, tocompetition wins in the 70s and 80s. He gleefully discusses a versionof “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair” that scandalized a 70s erabarbershop judging team, or the pitch issues involved in tuning closeharmonyseventh chords in vocal standards like “Five Foot Two, Eyesof Blue” and “Ain’t She Sweet.”Close harmony singing is challenging; you can’t assume, as a classicallytrained musician or experienced choral singer, that you willautomatically be able to tune barbershop chords. Classical singersgenerally sing accompanied by piano, and the tempered tuning ofthe piano does not always foster sensitive ears. Piano and orchestralaccompaniment can become a kind of aural crutch in which asounding pitch is approximately matched and really sensitive intervallictuning is neglected.Barbershop rehearsals make very little recourse to piano, eitherfor harmonies or melodic lines. Singers instead are given a root tonefrom a pitch pipe, and are expected to be able to build their harmoniesfrom that information alone. They use sheet music in rehearsal –performances are always memorized – but are often working asmuch by ear and from memory as from a printed score. The singers Italked to all showed an awareness of the nature of pitch relationshipsand of the necessity of microtuning to give a chord a more vibrantsound, in a manner that would befuddle many musicians with moreformal training.I met some singers who had recently begun singing in the EYB andothers who had been singing in barbershop ensembles literally almostall their lives. Director emeritus George Shields continues to singwith the ensemble, along with his, brother-in-law, Jack Kelly, whowas a founding member 65 years ago. George and Jack are 89 and 90years old.Lindsay-born Pat Hannon, the ensemble’s young director, identifieshimself as a fourth generation barbershopper, who grew up with thesound of close harmony in his home. Hannon points out that modernbarbershop singing has both branched out from its original repertoireto include arrangements of songs such as Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”22 | May 1 - June 7, 2015

and Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” and at the same time is beginning torediscover and explore its own roots in African-American culture,from which many of its traditions originated.Before I left, the ensemble serenaded me with Hank Snow’s“You’re as Welcome as the Flowers in May,” keeping perfect tune asevery member of the group filed by and shook my hand, one by one.Walking out of Harmony Hall into the cool spring night, I was gladto see that in this corner of East Toronto this charming and rigoroustradition of a cappella community singing is healthy and thriving.Time to SING! Barbershop and many other a cappella groups of allsizes and styles can be found at Toronto’s SING! festival, a dynamicevent now in its fourth year. SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival willtake place May 27 to 31. SING! was co-founded by the energetic andpassionate Aaron Jensen, a composer/singer/conductor involved in somany different vocal music projects that he clearly does not have timeto sleep. Still, he sounds more than alert when discussing his loveof singing. In response to a follow-up email question, Jensen writes:“There is no human culture, no matter how remote or isolated, thatdoesn’t sing. We sing to build personal bonds, to celebrate, to venerategods, to mark rites of passage and to pass along ancient stories.Singing boosts your mental health, calms nerves, sharpens yourmemory, reduces anxiety and raises your spirits. Singing is intimate,evocative, empowering, and it’s just plain fun.”Jensen’s vision for the SING! festival is one that welcomes and celebratesmany genres of music in the context of unaccompanied singing.His mandate is to make the festival and attendant events throughoutthe year a resource and hub for vocal training and performance inCanada. Jensen has also reached out to other North American cities,and there will be an upcoming SING! festival in Austin, Texas inOctober 2015.Most of the activities in the Toronto event will be centred in theCongratulations toJennyCroberPETER MAHONSales Representative416-322-8000pmahon@trebnet.comwww.petermahon.comon 10 years as Artistic Directorextraordinaire of VOCA Chorus ofToronto and the former East York Choir.Here’s to many more!R.A.M. Koor(Estonian National Male Choir)Canadian Concert TourSaturday May 23 8 pmDominion-Chalmers United Church OttawaSunday May 24 8 pmAll Saints Anglican Church PeterboroughWednesday May 27 8 pmSaint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church HamiltonThursday May 28 8 pmChrist’s Church Deer Park TorontoSaturday May 30 8 pmwith Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra &Toronto Estonian Male Choir ScarboroughSunday May 31 2 pmInternational Bach Festival ExeterSunday May 31 8 pmGuelph Youth Music Centre Guelphtickets & informationwww.choirsontario.orgin cooperation withCanadian tour sponsorYour choristers May 1 - June 7, 2015 | 23

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