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Barbershop harmony's youth movement

June 30, 2009 | 12:03 pm

Mention barbershop quartets and you’re bound to conjure images of men in striped vests and bowlers belting in unison about their high-school sweethearts who are invariably named Adelaide or Rose.

Old stereotypes die hard but even the most stubborn of them fade away eventually. In fact, if you look hard enough, you can make out a smattering of young, smooth-faced barbershoppers in designer threads taking their place among the crowd of silver-haired crooners.

Though it is one of the most tradition-bound of musical genres, barbershop is currently experiencing a rejuvenation that some are hoping will help change public perception for good. Quartets and choruses around the country are actively courting young singers and promoting them as the art form's bright new hope.

"It's not that we don’t like the traditional stuff, but we want to make barbershop appeal to new audiences," said Sean Devine, a member of OC Times, a Southern California quartet formed in Costa Mesa whose members are in their 20s and early 30s.

"We want to push the envelope. We're interested in performing songs from the '50s and '60s and all the way up to the present, which for barbershop is pretty revolutionary."

OCTimes 

This week in Anaheim, the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Convention will showcase a competition of groups from around the world. The convention, which runs through Sunday, is an annual event and is the biggest barbershop gathering in the country. Other young-ish local quartets scheduled to make appearances include the Crush (also from Orange County) and L.A.-based the Vagrants.

The Barbershop Harmony Society, a national organization that promotes a capella four-part harmony, is actively pushing such quartets as the OC Times and the Crush by posting video footage of performances on YouTube, engaging potential fans via Facebook and tweeting about upcoming concerts.

But changing people's perceptions is an uphill battle. The United States has approximately 2,000 active barbershop quartets and 800 choruses. The median age is 66 and 40% of barbershoppers are 70 and older.

"It's going to take a lot of time. You don't change people's opinions overnight," said Todd Wilson, marketing director of the Barbershop Harmony Society. "But we're trying to re-position ourselves in people's eyes."

One hopeful statistic: the average age of new recruits has dropped to 46.5 years old since January 2008, a sign that barbershop is starting to skew in the right age direction. "The future of our organization is focusing on younger people," said Wilson.

Recruiting new singers can be a challenge since barbershop lacks the mass appeal of pop music. Many singers performed in a cappella groups in college or were part of a local church choir before joining a barbershop chorus, which can include up to 150 men.

The OC Times formed in 2003 when its members (which also include Shawn York, Patrick Claypool and Cory Hunt) met as part of the Masters of Harmony chorus, which is based in Santa Fe Springs. The foursome started out performing at shopping centers and parking lots before establishing themselves on the national scene. With their casual designer attire and relaxed on-stage personae, the group has become one of the biggest stars of the barbershop world, even cutting an album in 2007.

Most groups approach their singing with an almost zealous level of devotion. "It's a hobby that can get competitive and even obsessive," said Paul Tabone of the Crush quartet. "You're there to entertain but what's tough is when you get caught up in the rankings." The Crush, whose members are all in their 20s, performs traditional barbershop repertoire -- swing, jazz and big band music from the first half of the 20th century.

At this week's convention, the Crush and other quartets will be competing  at the Honda Center for the gold medal -- the top honor in the barbershop world. Groups go to great lengths to employ voice coaches and even choreographers to make their performances as sophisticated as possible. Judges look for perfect pitch, a clean sound and innovative staging.

The time commitment going into competitions can be taxing on singers since barbershop is an entirely amateur pursuit.  These weekend warriors usually hold full-time jobs (or are full-time students) and often spend their weekends flying to various competitions and events. "Sometimes we feel like we see more of each other than our bosses or families," said one performer at a recent Masters of Harmony concert in Long Beach.

Organizers hope that they will see a bump in recruitment thanks to the ongoing popularity of "American Idol" and "America's Got Talent." In Southern California, there is already an especially high number of barbershop groups, with 17 different choruses scattered around the area, the largest being the Masters of Harmony and its spinoff, the Westminster Chorus.

For the youngest singers, being a minority in a sea of gray hair has its advantages. "I think there's a retro coolness that other young people can appreciate," said York of the OC Times.  "Everyone's searching for some kind of originality in our consumer culture and that's why I think barbershop can be so appealing. It's the best hobby in the world."

-- David Ng

Barbershop Harmony Society's 71st annual International Convention and Competitions. Honda Center, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim; through Sunday; $25-$75. Ticket info here.

Photo: The OC Times, from left, Shawn York, tenor; Sean Devine, lead; Patrick Claypool, baritone, and Cory Hunt, bass. Credit: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times.

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