Having a little harmony in your life is a wonderful thing, as thousands of singers up and down the UK will tell you.
Singing in amateur groups, choirs and choruses has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years, partly fuelled by televised talent shows and a series of choir-based TV programmes hosted by Gareth Malone. As well as being a chance to make new friends, singing in a choir has proven benefits for physical and mental health... and for most choirs you don't have to be a great singer or even read music.
For all-male singing, most people think of a traditional male voice choir, which has a strong tradition in the UK, especially in Wales. But since the early 1970s the UK has also been home to BABS – the British Association of Barbershop Singers. The 'barbershop' style of unaccompanied four-part harmony is usually associated with the USA, where it is indeed huge, making it the world's biggest singing organisation.
The basic unit is the barbershop quartet – four men each singing one part to harmonise together. A barbershop chorus can have any number of members, split into the same four parts, which are:
· Lead – usually singing the melody line
· Tenor – harmonising above the melody line
· Bass – harmonising below the melody line
· Baritone – filling in all the gaps to help create harmonious chords
In the UK there are currently around 60 choruses which are members of BABS, and hundreds of quartets springing from those choruses. Last weekend saw the annual BABS convention, held this year in Harrogate. It is a chance for all UK 'barbershoppers' to meet up for a weekend of singing, shows, socialising and contests for choruses and quartets.
Cottontown Chorus (pictured), from Bolton, emerged as this year's chorus champions, just ahead of Grand Central Chorus, from the East Midlands, and Hallmark of Harmony, from Sheffield. Quartet champions were Finest Hour, comprising brothers James, Eddie and Nick Williams with Phil Cuthbert, finishing ahead of Portobello Road and The Locksmiths.
Top American quartets and choruses often travel across the Atlantic to entertain at the British convention. Meanwhile, the British champions also qualify to compete at the International Convention, held in various cities across the USA and organised by the Barbershop Harmony Society – the world umbrella organisation for barbershop singing.
While tradition still has a part to play, modern barbershop rarely conforms to the stereotype image of four men in straw boaters and striped waistcoats singing songs your grandpa knew. Instead it encompasses a wide age range and a broad repertoire of songs, from oldtime classics to modern pop songs arranged in the barbershop style.
And the ladies aren't left out either! Far from it, as there are ladies' choruses up and down the UK, members either of LABBS (Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers) or the international Sweet Adelines organisation.
To find out more about barbershop singing in your area, and how to get involved with your local chorus, visit www.singbarbershop.com for men, and www.labbs.org.uk or sweetadelines.org.uk for women. To see this year's UK champions Cottontown Chorus performing, click here.