The Harmony Brigade Experience: a personal account

Note - this rather long fan-boy rambling was penned around the time of my first two brigades (AHB in Aug '06 and NCHB in Jan '07) and was originally posted on MySpace. If you are willing to take the time to read it you'll have a pretty clear idea of what my first brigade was like.

Wow, what a weekend! I'm not sure if I can adequately describe the adrenaline high I was on all weekend but I can try.

Friday, August 18, 2006

My wife, Jeanne, and I drove up to Wilmington, DE early Friday morning so that I could attend the inaugural Atlantic Harmony Brigade (AHB) Rally. With this rally our District joined the North Carolina and Indiana Harmony Brigades in promoting what is being called Extreme Quartetting. Quartet-minded guys submitted applications to be considered for one of the 25 slots per voice part that were available. Early in May each of the invitees were sent the sheet music and learning CDs for 12 songs and we had roughly four months to learn them by heart, words, notes, and interpretation. I had done my homework and was looking forward to a weekend of singing.

We arrived at the hotel around 1 pm and I headed inside to verify what the day's schedule was before I headed to a friend's house to drop Jeanne off. The rooms weren't ready and the AHB check-in table wasn't set up yet but things were going to start happening around 2 pm. I saw a guy blowing a pitch pipe looking around to see if he could get a quartet together to start singing while we were waiting and I headed over. I caught his eye and joined in as he started the song and we soon found ourselves in the middle of a small gang-sing. He stopped and asked for just four guys to sing and pointed me out as the first tenor on the scene so the song was mine. 

Cool! Two minutes in the door and I'm already singing! We finished the song and I headed back out to take Jeanne to Aston, PA where our friends live. I got Jeanne unloaded, hugged my friend Shannon and flirted with her a bit, and then headed back to the hotel in Clayton, DE. I got checked into my room, took my luggage up and the check-in table was set up by the time I got back downstairs. The rally organizers had made arrangements for four quartets to hit the streets to promote the Saturday night show and you could hear them off in various corners running through the songs. I checked in and picked up my welcome package. The package was informative and held a color-coordinated nametag with matching lanyard, a copy of the weekend's schedule, a critique sheet for after the rally was over, my dance card and the riser pass that I would need to have completed in order to sing with the chorus on the show.

The basses all received brown lanyards, the baritones received blue lanyards, the leads had green lanyards and the tenors had yellow ones. Finding the missing part you needed to get a quartet together was as simple as looking at what a guy had hanging around his neck. Sweet! On the back side of the name badge holder was a list of the 12 songs, the keys they are written in, and the opening words of the song. Guess I didn't need the cheat sheet I had made at home after all.

The first thing I set out to do was get my riser pass completed. We had until 2 pm on Saturday to take care of it but I didn't see any reason to put it off. The core guys who were running the show had ribbons on their name badges – black meant they were staff, red meant they were authorized to pass you off on a song for your riser pass. Getting passed off was simple. Each pass had a list of four songs on it with a space for initials. You simply needed to get a quartet together and sing the songs on your list either with or for a tester and get their approval. Each guy had a different selection of songs and each tester could only sign you off on two songs. At a minimum you needed to convince two of the testers that you had done your homework. By 4:30 I was done and had a silver star on my name tag that showed I had completed the pass! I probably would have had it done sooner but leads were at a premium since it was still so early and people were still arriving.

The next item on my agenda was to start working on my dance card while I waited for dinner and the evening's activities to get under way. Each guy was given a list of all the other rally participants who sang a part different from yours (I had 66 guys on my sheet). You were also given a sheet full of stickers that had your name, home city and state, and your email address on it. The idea was to hook up with four guys you haven't sung with yet, sing one of the 12 songs and then exchange stickers. At the end of the weekend the person with the most stickers would be crowned the 2006 AHB Quartet Tramp which is a much politer term that what many of us were calling it all weekend! I ended up singing with 58 separate guys and was only missing 4 stickers at the end of the rally. Not too shabby. The other four were no-shows. By midnight on Saturday there were three guys who had completely filled out their sheets and a winner was drawn from those three candidates. He not only won the bragging rights but has an engraved medal to prove his accomplishment. Oh, one other thing – he gets in free next year, the bum!

We had the downstairs conference center floor all to ourselves and quartets were finding every nook and cranny they could to go sing in and get some distance between them and the next quartet. Dinner was served but I don't think the singing stopped once! Some guys got chow while the rest kept singing and then folks started rotating in and out from one area to another. At 6:30 we gathered in the main ballroom for announcements and quartet assignments. One of the announcements was that the AHB Chorus (all 90+ of us) would be singing all 12 songs on the show. They also requested that any quartets that wanted to sing on the show would need to audition for the music team on Saturday morning and would need to sing something other than the chorus material. The quartets could be the one you were going to compete with that evening or you could put together a pick-up quartet of guys that you liked singing with. Being the ham that I am I started looking around the room for the guys I'd already sung with and thought about who I'd like to try to talk into putting a quartet together.

The quartets for the evening's competition were formed by the luck of a draw. One of the judges pulled a Lead's name out of a pile. They came forward and drew the name of the Baritone they'd be singing with. The Bari's were the fortunate (or unfortunate) person who got to draw the name of the song the quartet would be singing. While he drew that the Lead drew the names of the Bass and Tenor to round out the quartet. The order of competition was the draw order which kept it pretty simple. I got picked in the third round. Once you had been assigned to a quartet the four guys would head off to find a corner to practice in and had to come up with a name to use in the competition. My quartet drew the song "If I Only Had a Brain" and promptly called ourselves the No-Brainers. We pitched the song up a full step at the request of our Lead who had a line at the bottom of his range but that put it closer to the top of mine!

Around 7:30 the contest began. The competition was fun and some of the names these guys came up with for their quartets were a riot: "Yanking the Dixie" and "Naked Gargoyles" are just a couple of examples. What can I say; Barbershoppers can be just as weird as the rest of the world! There were 24 quartets and a few of the guys ended up singing in two quartets to make up for the guys that had dropped out or were no shows. During a break in the competition I approached Eddie Holt (the former Lead of Yankee Dime and Resolution, and the Bari of the Great Nashville Singout) and asked him if he'd be interested in forming a quartet for the show. I suggested a song called "You Make Me Feel So Young" since it was part of the North Carolina Harmony Brigade's list of songs. He said it sounded like fun and we started looking for a Bari and Bass that also knew the song. We hooked up with Jon Vickers (Bass) and a young guy on Bari whose name I don't remember and tried out the song. The bari had some problems with the song since he hadn't sung it in a while and since it was time for the second round of competition to begin we decided to table the discussion until later.

The competition went well. Most of the quartets were okay, a few were a treat to listen to, and there were a couple that had some issues. My quartet was one of the first group – we were okay, but there was no way we'd make it to the top 10. Being thrown into a competition environment with three guys you've never sung with can be nerve-wracking but exciting all at the same time!

After the first round of the competition was over we got together again and found a new Bari, Mark Ream, that knew the song. After running through it a couple of times we decided we liked the sound and made arrangements to meet the next morning to go over it a couple of more times before the audition. We chose the name Fourbearance and then went our separate ways to work on our dance cards.

The rest of the night was spent singing with as many people as you could hook up with in various quartet configurations. Most of the guys were having a blast trying to work on filling out their dance card and there were a handful that didn't care if they got stickers or not. They just wanted to sing! At 2:30 am I headed to bed. Why? I needed to get up at 6:30 so I could meet the guys in time to practice for the audition which was scheduled for 8 am. Besides, I'd already sung with everyone who was still awake and couldn't get any more stickers for my dance card!