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!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Those of you reading this that know me also know that I am NOT a morning person. 6:30 was an awfully rude time to have to wake up on a Saturday! I showered and tried to wake up then stumbled downstairs. By 7:00 I was working on the dance card again waiting for the guys from Forbearance to show up. Hey, that's why we were there, right? We were all taking it easy trying to wake up our vocal cords. The basses of course didn't mind that their voices were lower in the morning before they warmed up. Must be nice to have vocal crud and have it increase your range by a few notes, eh? Eventually the four of us hooked up and we tried out the song nice and easy to see how we were sounding and then went searching for where the auditions were supposed to be taking place.

We found the room – we didn't find the music team. At 8 am one of them had shown up and told us to go ahead and get breakfast since we had to wait for the rest of the team to arrive anyway. Around 8:30 or so the music team was together and was ready for some entertainment. We headed in and went for it. It sounded great to me and judging by the looks on the music team's face we didn't suck! That is always a plus! When we finished the song it was pretty obvious that we would be on the show especially when they asked us if we knew anything else. We asked them to give us a few minutes and we'd be back!

We headed back into the hallway and compared song lists and found another one that we each knew, "I'm Sitting on Top of the World". We sang through it partway and then Eddie stopped us, taught me a great Lead-Tenor duet tiddly to throw in the middle of it and we started over. We figured it was passable and headed back in to see the music team and laid it on them within 10 minutes of singing the first one! They confirmed that we would be on the show singing at least "You Make Me Feel So Young" and they'd use the second one if they needed it. The guys headed off to go sing some more and I headed in to get some breakfast.

Once I was done eating I headed back out in search of guys I hadn't sung with yet. Many of the guys are just average singers but that doesn't seem to matter as much when they have the words and notes down cold! Each guy you met had his favorite as well as that "one song" that he really didn't care to sing for one reason or another. I had fallen in love with Royal Garden Blues and found that a lot of the leads weren't too keen on it because of the range. Sigh …

At lunchtime seven of us, including Fern Sicilia and Neal Dingle from New York, jumped in my wife's Toyota Prius and headed to Taco Bell. Yes, you read that right – seven men in a car designed for four. Neal sat in Fern's lap in the front seat which led to a wonderful round of teasing from all present. Being typical barbershoppers, it didn't take us long before we were singing again. We tried to keep it quiet so that we wouldn't bother the other patrons but we still received a nice round of applause when we were done.

2 pm. Time to be at the school for the rehearsal for the show that we would be singing in that evening for the public. When the first director in front of the group asked if anyone had a pitch pipe he shouldn't have been surprised when more than 50 hands were raised. C'mon, what was he thinking? I ended up being selected to blow the pitches since my pipe seemed to be the most accurate of the 5 or 6 that they tried. When we broke into the first song I was blown away. I've participated in gang sings at other events in the past but there is nothing that compares with a chorus of 90+ guys that have done their homework and can concentrate on what the director is trying to bring to the song instead of worrying about what word comes up next. I still get goose bumps thinking about it!

We found out that we were going to have a different director for each song – 12 songs, 12 directors. A couple of them took a little getting used to, but they were all fun to work with. We ran through each song a couple of times, tweaked a section here or there, and then that was it. Rehearsal done – nice! My quartet had a chance to practice on the stage and raised a few eyebrows among the guys that had stuck around. The sound was great and made me wonder what we'd sound like if we actually spent time working on the song to clean up the rough edges. While I enjoyed singing with my old quartet, Chord on Blue, these guys were just at a whole new level which was a real treat for me.

We had some free time before we had to be back for the performance so the 7 of us piled back into the Prius and headed back to the hotel. Some guys went to their rooms to chill out for a while – I joined the throng back in the conference area to keep singing. After dinner we got ready for the show and changed into our "uniform" for the evening: white shirt with a t-shirt, black pants and shoes, and a solid color tie. I wore my Chord on Blue neon blue tie which really should come with a dimmer switch and received a lot of good-natured ribbing about how bright it is. As the time for the show drew nearer it became apparent that our promotion had paid off and we were going to have a good-sized audience. We opened the show with Royal Garden Blues and the energy just built from there. There is something about getting in front of an audience that just helps a performance to come together – all of our rehearsal nitpicks worked through smoothly and the sound was just incredible. I was literally in the middle of the chorus and was surrounded by sound!

When the show was over we headed out to the lobby to meet with our families and friends that were there. My wife and our friend Shannon were there along with some of Mark Ream's family members. We grabbed Eddie and Jon, and Fourbearance sang a few songs for the ladies in the lobby. We bid them adieu and headed back to the hotel.

Around 9:30 the quartet finals began. The guys on the stage were having fun and that bled into the audience. The baritones would holler when one of their own sang a favorite baritone swipe or tiddly, guys started doing the wave in time to the way one quartet was swaying as they sang, and there was other silliness all the way around. At one point I was in the back of the room with my hair down head banging while the quartet on stage encouraged the audience to have fun. Once the contest was over they awarded the quartet tramp award while the scores were tallied. Charlie Rose's quartet took the top prize and there were cries of "Rigged!" from various areas of the room – Charlie is the daddy of the brigade movement and started the first one in North Carolina 14 years ago.

Pizza was delivered and the partying started in earnest. There was beer, food, and singing – a really nice combination if you ask me!

Sunday, August 20, 2006 (my birthday)

My birthday started out very nicely. The guys in Fourbearance headed off to an empty stairwell to record a few songs together so we could share them with our family members that couldn't come to the concert. The stairwell echoed badly, the mic was too close and we overpowered it on the louder passages, our voices were tired, and poor Jon had a cough that kicked in at some interesting times. Despite the crappy conditions I'm still happy with what we captured because the recordings can take us back to that stairwell and that night …

Around 1 am I was looking for new people to sing with and the members of Reveille were holding court singing what sounded like the arrangement of Danny Boy that I learned with the Suffolk, VA chapter. When they were done I asked if I could give the same song a try. I had recently sung a parody of that arrangement with a pickup quartet back home at a wedding reception and was eager to sing the actual song. John, Joe, and Mark were gracious enough to repeat the song and Mark helped me work my way through the passages that were different than what I had learned. I asked them if they knew the song That Old Quartet of Mine and found out that they did indeed know it although some of them hadn't sung it in a while. I've always liked that song and singing it with those guys gave me chills – damn it was good! I thanked them for their time and the chance to sing with them and headed off searching for new opportunities. I finally headed to bed around 3 am, happy, tired, and simply overwhelmed at the intensity of the weekend.

7 am. You could tell that I still hate mornings, but you have to get up if you want to catch the breakfast that you've already paid for (sigh). After a shower and some food I was ready to sing some more then we had the last session of the weekend. Eddie Holt won the award for "The Guy Everyone Wanted to Sing With". One of the guys I was hanging around with at that point wanted to know why I had such a snot-eating grin on my face so early in the morning. I told him that it was my birthday and that the weekend had been a present from my lovely wife – what a present! Being a typical barbershopper, he immediately let the room know and I was treated to a 50+ man rendition of Happy Birthday. Pretty cool stuff.

By 10:30 I was checked out of my room and heading to Shannon's place to pick Jeanne up for the ride home. Both of the ladies agreed that I was scary when on a barbershop high! I was tired and worn out from lack of sleep and literally bouncing from the leftover adrenaline from the weekend. So how much singing did I get in when all was said and done? I sang for roughly 7.5 hours on Friday, 10 hours on Saturday, and still had the chops to sing an hour or so Sunday morning before I left. Did I have a good time? Enough to ensure that I had the contact information for the membership guy for the North Carolina Harmony Brigade before I left! I'll try to get into that group too and I look forward to returning to Wilmington next summer!

The Harmony Brigade: they don't call it Extreme Quartetting for nothing!