Extreme Quartets. What’s that you say? A barbershop quartet is not what you might think – four old men with moustaches and straw boaters, though sometimes the lady singers might have a moustache.
These days a barbershop quartet is likely to be four young women or even four random strangers with a common love of tight harmonies sung a cappella. Extreme Quartets is a fairly recent thing in the barbershop world. People learn a list of songs, then get together for a contest. People are randomly assigned to a quartet and then just before the contest, they are told what song they will be singing.
Extreme Quartets 2015
For the last couple of years, I’ve been watching the contest at the annual Harmony College run by BABS (the British Association of Barbershop Singers) and it looked like so much fun I plucked up my courage last year and entered.
Participants nominate which voice part they will sing. I usually sing the lead part in ladies barbershop. That’s the melody, the tenors sing the high part, the basses sing the low part and the baritones sing all the other notes needed to make up the chord. Because men have a lower register, I can’t sing the low notes of a men’s barbershop lead arrangement so I nominated for men’s tenor. We were sent the sheet music for six songs and teach tracks. I don’t read music very well, so I learn by ear from the teach tracks and read the music mostly for the words and for the gaps where I can breathe.
When 60 people arrived at the University of Nottingham, we were tested to be sure we knew the songs before being allowed to enter the competition. It would not be fair to the other three in your random quartet if one of you didn’t know your part. I was tested on two songs and was relieved to pass them both on the first try. So on to the singing!
Extreme Quartets Performance
The video below is our contest performance. We called ourselves No Quarter and drew the lovely ballad Ebb Tide to sing. This features the tenor part which is usually a harmony part.
The Saturday Show
Another fun thing that happens at Harmony College is the Ladies Chorus. Because BABS is a men’s organisation (the sister organisation for women is LABBS), most of the attendees traditionally have been men. Over time, more and more ladies started attending and it’s become a tradition for the ladies to get together and sing one song to open the Saturday night show. Again, we are sent the sheet music and teach tracks a couple of weeks before Harmony College and once we are there we get together three times for about 20 minutes each time to run through the song. The discipline is wonderful. Everyone arrives knowing the song and it always starts the show off with a bang.
Harmony Brigade UK 2016
Stepping up the extreme quartetting to a new level, this year I took part in Harmony Brigade where contestants learned twelve songs in their own parts! An hour before the contest, we were assigned randomly to a quartet and given a randomly chosen song (from the 12) to sing in the contest. We then had 20 minutes to think of a name for our quartet and rehearse our song together, never having sung together before.
Then the announcement came, “Contestant Number 5. Five Functional Nanoparticles” and we were in front of the judges.
Our assigned song was “The Way We Were” sung so beautifully by Barbra Streisand in the film of the same name. We sang with Mary as lead, I sang tenor, Lindley sang bass and Kevin sang baritone. We didn’t win, but had a lot of fun.
Are you surprised that women sing barbershop? What’s your favourite a cappella song?