Creating harmony with a barbershop sound

Members of the Upper Yoopers Barbershop Chorus pose for a photograph. (Photo courtesy of Upper Yoopers Barbershop Chorus)

Members of the Upper Yoopers Barbershop Chorus pose for a photograph. (Photo courtesy of Upper Yoopers Barbershop Chorus)

by Jim Pennell

The exact beginning of music is impossible to determine. It predates the written word, and early humans, no doubt, found it challenging to draw a depiction of music on a cave wall. One thing that is for sure is that all music started with the human voice.

Long before there were guitars, pianos, zithers, lutes, lyres, vibraphones, kazoos, theremins or tubas, there was just the human voice singing. Even after accompanying instruments were invented, the a capella voice still had a place in music. In the days before amplification, the only way to have lyrics be heard was to have more people singing them. Barbershop singing grew out of this style, and while it’s exact beginnings are hard to pinpoint, the general consensus is that it started with African-American men singing in, you guessed it, barbershops. Barbershops have always been more a gathering place than just somewhere to get your hair cut. Barbershop quartets were big around the turn of the century and spread into the popular culture at the time, but with the invention of the microphone and amplification, solo singers became the trend.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in a capella singing and Upper Yooper Barbershop Chorus is trying to keep it growing with barbershop singing. Pete Stephens-Brown is the group’s music director and president. He was also instrumental in getting it started.

“I was involved in two other barbershop choruses in other areas before this one,” Stephens-Brown said. “Moving into the Marquette area with all the music and all the talent and all the arts going on, it just seemed like a natural choice.”

It’s been a slow start for the group, but progress is being made. The atmosphere is relaxed and non-competitive.

“It’s about how all of us normal, average singers can get together and make these amazing sounds,” Stephens-Brown said. “We’ve had a limited response because so many people after half a century of absence (of barbershop singing) in Marquette County have no concept of what we’re talking about. Turnout has been less than expected. We have some people involved and at least nine people on a regular basis. That’s a good core for a chorus.”

Despite its slow beginning, the group is starting to become a presence in the area.

“We’ve already had quite a few gigs,” Stephens-Brown continued. “We’ve done some busking on Third Street and on Washington Street last summer where we’d show up and say ‘Hey, do you want us to sing a song?’ and most people said, ‘Yes’ and they took out their phones and made videos and took pictures. We’ve also done Valentine’s Day serenading, which is a lot of fun. We went to grocery stores, we went to homes, we went to malls, we went downtown and to restaurants, all kinds of places. We’d show up, sing them a song, hand them a rose, hand them some chocolates and move on our merry way. We sang 29 songs that day, which is not a record, but it’s a lot for a Sunday. It’s lovey-dovey and warm and fuzzy.

“There was one instance where we went to a home and the lady had asked us to serenade her husband. She was so lovey-dovey with public displays of affection, which were appropriate because her kids weren’t there and we were all grown-ups. It got a little warm in the room, and the warmth spread to some members of the chorus and got them thinking in ways they really hadn’t thought before. It was cute. It’s a fun group.”

Upper Yoopers Barbershop Chorus is hosting a show on April 16 at Peterson Auditorium in Ishpeming. A number of groups are performing, and the Yooper chorus is only doing one song to open the show.

“Part of our problem is invisibility, and we’re going to fix that in large way with this show,” Stephens-Brown said. “Our mission is to become visible and an active part of Marquette County culture. During the rest of the year, we’re going to be here, there or other places. There’s a calendar that’s going into the program that will highlight some of our future activities. It’s not like we’re going to disappear. That why it’s not a big deal if we only sing one song at the show. We’re highlighting all these other normal people who sing barbershop.”

There will be plenty of singing that day. In addition to the concert, the singers will gather in the lobby of the auditorium during intermission to do some tag singing, which is a friendly competition between groups to see who can sing the ending, or “tag” to a song the best or the loudest or the longest. There will also be an afterglow following the concert, but it will differ from what most people expect an afterglow to be.

“Our kind of afterglow is essentially another show after the show,” Stephens-Brown said. “The same performers will be at the afterglow, and we’re asking everyone to sing more music, and it will be different music that wasn’t already in the show. At the afterglow, things are a lot more casual, the hair gets let down, and more jokes happen, and they’re sillier jokes. We’re also going to have some substantial finger food and a cash bar.”

The group is hosting the concert for two reasons. The first and primary one is to raise money for their featured chorus they’ve chosen to sponsor this year, the Lakeview Elementary Chorus from Lakeview School in Negaunee. The second is to generate interest in the group and draw some more singers in. Stephens-Brown wants everyone, both male and female, to know they are welcome to join the group.

“Frankly, most barbershoppers don’t read music; they’re not trained musicians; they just like to sing,” he said. “They sing around the house; they sing in the backyard; they sing while they’re driving to work and back; they sing while they’re washing dishes. It’s a normal thing that we humans do that we can do really well together.”

If you need a haircut, you’ll have to find a different barbershop, but for those who love to sing just for the sake of singing, more information about the group can be had by emailing or by calling Pete Stephens-Brown at 361-8308.

Da Upper Yoopers Spring Fling Sing  will be at 3 p.m. April 16 at Peterson Auditorium in Ishpeming. The afterglow will start at 6 p.m. at Red Rock Lanes, also in Ishpeming.

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