Barbershop music doesn’t really happen in barbershops anymore. And those who are serious about singing it rarely wear pinstriped vests, sleeve garters and straw hats.
In fact, a modern-day barbershop singer might be your doctor, your lawyer, your kid’s math teacher, that nice retired guy at the end of the block. In Wichita, barbershop singers are everywhere, hiding in plain sight.
Except next week. Next week, they’ll all be in Vegas.
SmorgasChorus, a 5-year-old barbershop chorus in Wichita, this week will become the first chorus in Wichita to qualify for the International Chorus Competition, which is sponsored each year by the national Barbershop Harmony Society. On Friday, 42 of the group’s 52 members will take the stage in front of about 7,000 people at The Axis theater at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas and try to harmonize their way toward victory against 29 top-rated choruses from around the world – choruses with intimidating names like the Masters of Harmony and Vocal Revolution.
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“It’s the big dance for the Barbershop Harmony Society,” said Matt Webber, the chorus’ artistic director and co-founder who also is the upper-school vocal music teacher at Wichita Collegiate.
SmorgasChorus is one of only two active barbershop choruses in Wichita. The other is the Air Capital Chorus, a group that’s been in existence for 77 years.
SmorgasChorus was formed in 2012 by seven local singers. All of them had at one time been a part of Butler Community College’s SmorgasChords quartet, whose members rotate out every two years as students come and go. They’d been reunited the previous year at an event to honor their former teacher, Valerie Lippoldt Mack, who was being recognized by the Central States District of the Barbershop Harmony Society and who had contacted her past and present students and asked them to put together a special performance for her awards ceremony.
The men started comparing notes and realized that Wichita was full of men who loved to sing and who had experience with four-party harmony. Some of them might want to join a new group, they reasoned, and they decided they wanted to form a competitive group whose goal would be qualifying for contests.
The initial group was mostly Butler College alumni and students, but after two years, the founders opened the ranks to other men in the community who could pass a rigorous audition process. The group has continued to grow since then, swelling from 30 to 52 members just in the past year.
The SmorgasChorus membership includes singers ages 14 to 70 who come from all professions. Several are private voice instructors and middle and high school teachers. Some are retirees. The youngest member is a 14-year-old Trinity Academy student about to start his freshman year of high school. Among the older members are retirees from Topeka and Kansas City who drive to Wichita every week just to attend rehearsal.
The men get together every Monday from 6:45 to 9 p.m. to rehearse, and their commitment has paid off. Last year, though they didn’t qualify for the international competition in Nashville, they were invited to be “mic testers,” meaning they still got to perform noncompetitively on the contest stage. But the trip only strengthened their desire to compete, Webber said.
This year, the group placed second at its regional competition and earned a wild-card bid to complete at internationals. They’re ranked 22nd in the nation.
Members of the chorus – many of whom would likely never have met otherwise – have grown close through the process, Webber said, bonded by their love of harmony.
“The guys love the brotherhood aspect,” he said. “It feels very fraternal.”
At a recent Monday-night rehearsal, the men gathered on an auditorium stage at Wichita Collegiate to work on fine-tuning their two songs for the international performance: arrangements of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” and “This Can’t Be Love” from the Rodgers and Hart musical “The Boys from Syracuse.”
They dressed comfortably for the long rehearsal, most wearing shorts and sandals or jeans and tennis shoes. On performance day, though, they’ll be buttoned up, all dressed in matching black suits and orange neckties.
After a vocal warmup that the men performed facing each other in a circle, they got to work. But it was hard for an outside observer to know exactly what they were working on. They sang a three-word phrase from “This Can’t Be Love” – “not for me” – over and over and over again. Each time, Webber had a new bit of advice on how to exactly pronounce or emote each word. Then they did it again.
“Not for me.”
“Not for me.”
“Not for me.”
Then, suddenly, the chorus broke into a performance of the full song, and the four parts – bass, baritone, tenor and lead – filled the room with sounds so smooth and clear, it was almost like they were being produced by an instrument.
Perfecting the notes, though, isn’t the chorus members’ only job. They also work to perfect their on-stage movements, which aren’t choreography per se but are designed to draw the audience into the emotion of the music. The chorus members swayed. They stepped. They raised their eyebrows and smiled with teeth showing. They pushed their arms out slowly from their bodies, as though they were moving them through molasses, then snapped them back suddenly, covering their hearts with their hands during particularly emotional lyrics. All of it’s intentional.
“Make sure you’ve got your teeth and eyebrows and everything going on,” Webber reminded the group.
That’s part of the appeal to Caden Jahn, the 14-year-old member of the group. The son of Nifty Nuthouse owner Steve Jahn, Caden will travel to Las Vegas next week accompanied by his mom.
Caden initially was introduced to barbershop music in sixth grade, when he was as student at Collegiate and Webber was his teacher. Webber was impressed and asked him to try out for the SmorgasChorus.
Though he doesn’t tell his friends a lot about his chorus membership (none of them would probably care or get it, he said), it’s one of the most fun things he does.
“I really like it,” said Caden, who plans to join the freshman choir at Trinity Academy next year. “It’s not like a regular chorus that’s supposed to be all stiff. Almost all the songs in barbershop are about love, so when we sing, we sing from the heart.”
Webber said his goal is that the group keeps growing and keeps winning.
Though he doesn’t expect any big wins next week, he said, the group has the kind of momentum and dedication that could make it a harmonic force in the future.
He can’t wait for all the men to feel the lights of that big stage.
“It really is a goosebumps moment when you’re on that contest stage,” he said. “You feel like you’re a rock star. You never thought you’d have thousands of people screaming for you.”
What: A 5-year-old a cappella barbershop chorus made up of local singers
Where: The group occasionally performs around town and conducts workshops for youths. Their schedule is on their website at smorgaschorus.net.