The Big Chorus Show

The 2014 Barbershop Harmony Society International Convention was recently held in Las Vegas during the first week of July. As always, quartets and choruses travel from around the world to compete against one another. This year, Musical Island Boys from New Zealand won the quartet contest, and The Vocal Majority from Dallas/Fort Worth prevailed in the chorus contest. Normally the quartet contest is what gets everyone talking about, but this year the chorus contest was the primary talking point leading up the convention.

The major point of interest for the chorus contest was the high quality of the choruses lined up to compete in Las Vegas. The most notable example was that The Vocal Majority competed against The Masters of Harmony of southern California. Both of these choruses have won multiple championships and, because of the contest rules, have never had the opportunity to compete against one another. Other choruses that appeared this year included Great Northern Union (who had come in second place in 2011 and 2012), zero8 from Stockholm, Sweden, and Kentucky Vocal Union (who are notable for their innovative performances).

The chorus competition was certainly exciting. I was lucky enough to compete with Voices of Gotham and I was quite satisfied with our showing in Las Vegas. But more than the fun of competing, and the joy of watching the other choruses perform and sing, I was intrigued by the two different styles of chorus singing that were present at the highest levels of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s chorus competition. This is trend that has been emerging over the last ten years, and I believe that new model of barbershop chorus has already established itself.

My ideal of a barbershop chorus performance is largely formed by two different performances. The first was in 2009 by the Ambassadors of Harmony, and the next was by the Westminster Chorus in 2010:

These are both remarkably different performances, and not only have they helped me define what a flawless performance can look and sound like, the scores they received in the contest also reflect that attitude. Russ Young, who judged the Westminster performance, mentioned to me and several others at Harmony University in 2012 that he gave the Westminster performance a score of 98 (out of 100), and the score sheet from 2009 shows that Ambassadors received at least three perfect scores. More importantly though, the styles of singing from these two performances are different. Ambassadors of Harmony had over twice as many men on stage in their performance, and thus the sound they created is quite different from Westminster’s.

The big chorus sound is nothing new to a barbershop chorus competition. This sound was created and defined largely by the 2014 champions, The Vocal Majority. The Vocal Majority, starting in the 1970s, demonstrated that a big chorus, executing difficult music and creating spectacular performances is what wins championships. They even won 10 championships in a row. (1979-2006, a chorus champion can only compete once every three years as per Barbershop Harmony Society rules.) Ambassadors used this model to eventually defeat the The Vocal Majority in 2009 with “76 Trombones,” essentially besting The Vocal Majority at their own game.

However, Westminster decided to play a different kind of game. In 2010 Westminster won gold by singing in a way that few had ever heard in a chorus contest. They brought only 67 men onto the stage and sang with such fidelity and consistency that The Vocal Majority was forced to take silver for the second year in a row.

The Vocal Majority returned to competition this year, and on July 4, 2014 won another championship. They did not however change much about who they are and what sound they make. They came to Las Vegas and did exactly what one would expect The Vocal Majority to do. They performed two songs with high degree of accuracy of sound and presentation, and did everything a chorus must do to win. In fact, that’s what most of the top choruses did this year. The only chorus that placed in the top five that didn’t embrace this plan was zero8; their performance featured a clear, ringing sound more than anything else. Also, sixth place was claimed by Kentucky Vocal Union, who also sing with the high fidelity sound of Westminster and zero8 (Kentucky Vocal Union performed an extremely unconventional set of songs that included Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”).

Although the big choruses claimed the top spots this year, the fact that fifth and sixth place went to choruses using the new sound style shows that this sound has begun to establish itself in the Barbershop Harmony Society’s chorus contest. In fact, several other choruses are striving for this sound, and in the last few years, this new sound has placed itself among some of the higher scoring choruses. The difficulty seems to be keeping that high fidelity sound consistent throughout an entire song, and so far Westminster is the only chorus that has succeeded in doing that.

Las Vegas was the year of big choruses not only showing what they can do, but that the big chorus of over 100 men is still the best way to win a barbershop chorus contest. But the reality of Westminster’s 2010 set, and the new emerging choruses embracing this kind of sound means that we may see a sound shift sooner rather then later.


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