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Barbershop harmonies ring though Hutchins Street Square

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Posted: Sunday, March 24, 2013 1:21 am

Four teenage boys in red and pink ties singing about heartbreak and love lost doesn’t sound like a recipe for happiness.

But add in acapella stylings and something special that is exclusively found in barbershop harmonies, and just try to keep your foot from tapping and a grin from spreading across your face.

Dozens of quartets and choruses from California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada gathered for the three-day Far Western District Spring Convention and Contest less than a month shy of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s 75th birthday on April 11.

The lineup included preliminary competitions for the international contest in Toronto in July, lessons on how to read music, and performance evaluations to use each session on stage as a chance to improve.

Hundreds of men sporting various shiny silk vests and bow ties over crisp white button-downs milled about at Hutchins Street Square waiting for the next performance or their call for a group photo.

District President Russ Young said the best thing about Barbershop Harmony is that it makes each man a better singer. In such a small group, there’s nowhere to hide and no one else to cover your part. Plus, it’s easy to rehearse without any instruments to bring along.

“There’s just something different about it,” Young said. “When you get in the middle of a performing quartet and you hear those ringing chords ... you can’t explain it. You have to experience it.”

But among the silver-haired and middle-aged core group, the performance that called the most attention was mid-afternoon on Saturday, when teenagers took the stage. Five high school quartets were dressed up and ready to belt out tunes with nothing but a pitch pipe to keep on track.

It might seem difficult to persuade a 16-year-old to spend hours a week practicing a four-part harmony in a song from his grandfather’s teen years.

The key is to find youths who love music, teach them how to hold their own in a performance, and welcome them into the society with open arms.

The system works, said Young, because of the youth outreach work. Each summer, the Far Western District holds Harmony Camps. The local Stockton Portsmen host them in the Lodi area.

It was at one of these camps three years ago that Harvey Ching, now 18, first got the hang of barbershop harmony. He pulled three of his musically inclined friends into the hobby, and they soon found themselves spending several hours a week poring over sheet music, selecting arrangements and practicing scales. They were among the quartets that took the stage on Saturday under the group name Top RawMen. The four teens from McNair High School earned a standing ovation from the audience for their performance.

“Songs from today are different, sure. But if the music sounds pleasing to my ear, and if it makes me happy, then I like it. And we try to instill that in what we do,” said Ching.

His friends echoed that emotion, saying the support from the veteran singers inspires them to be better at their craft.

“Not many people our age are into this,” said Joshua Cabardo, 17. “It keeps us open.”

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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