A chorus of friendship for all-female barbershop group

MusicEntertainmentChesapeake (Chesapeake, Virginia)Arts and CultureHuman InterestAnnapolisSeverna Park

As the owner of a small business in Annapolis, Patti Platt always felt so frazzled and busy that she couldn't imagine taking even one night away to gain a little perspective.

Hers, she says, was a life out of sync — or, more aptly, a life out of tune.

Then she decided to join the Chesapeake Harmony Chorus.

"I used to think there was no way I could make time for something like this," said Platt, 58, as she cheerfully shed her overcoat, did a few vocal warm-up exercises and stepped into a circle of 15 women for a two-hour session of barbershop-style harmonizing Wednesday evening. "Now I can't do without it. It's the night I look forward to most."

It was 7:30 p.m. at Historic Baldwin Hall in Millersville — rehearsal time for Chesapeake Harmony, a small and enthusiastic chapter of Sweet Adelines International, a worldwide organization that has been turning four-part a cappella singing for women into an avenue for social and musical blending since the 1940s.

Nearly 20 women, mostly from Anne Arundel, are members of the chorus, the smallest of three such chapters based in the county.

"I love the musical challenge, and it's such fun to be around [this] group of women," says Leone Craven, 62, an Arnold resident who helped start the chapter in 1998 and has been a member ever since. "And singing has health benefits. They say it releases endorphins in the body. I can't quote you all the science, but you can certainly feel it. Singing is a wonderful way to leave the baggage of the day behind and reduce stress."

For members like Platt and Craven, Chesapeake Harmony offers a chance for female singers of all ages and backgrounds to do what most "barbershop" groups do — divide into four distinct groups based on vocal range (the tenors, leads, baritones and basses), and then, working with musically layered tunes such as the old standards "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" or "God Bless America," weave the parts into a smooth, tightly woven tapestry of sound.

"When it's done right, it sounds great, but it's harder than it looks," says Platt, a baritone.

The group also provides a sort of family-reunion feel that extends a sense of welcome to all female comers, as long as they can carry a basic tune, absorb a few good-natured barbs and commit to attending on a regular basis.

"You can join for any reason," says Constance "Tancey" Bosna, the group's perpetually upbeat director. "You can join because you love to sing, because you love to organize, because you like doing PR, because you want to be a president of something.

"We're each other's best friends. My sisters don't call me as much as they do," adds Bosna, a 32-year member of Sweet Adelines and a veteran director who enjoys Chesapeake Harmony's singing and camaraderie so much that she drives down from her home in Philadelphia to make the weekly rehearsals.

It was an open-house night, the first of four Wednesday evenings during which the club plans to open its doors to any and all comers this month. And if the handful of newbies in attendance were paying attention to such things, they learned there was at least one pair of sisters in the chorus, not to mention a mother-and-daughter team: three-year veteran Sally Burton of Severna Park and her daughter, Sarah, a theater arts major and frequent attendee who was visiting during a college break.

"When Sarah went away to school, I had to find something, and this wonderful group of women pulled me in," Sally said. "Now I'm addicted to singing."

And Nancy Harring of Severna Park — at 75, the oldest member of the chorus — was chatting everyone up as she handed out Christmas ornaments that went unsold at a recent holiday concert.

But like barbershop itself, the evening was deceptively serious. The women gathered in a circle and did a variety of stretches ("music comes from the body, and if the body isn't loose, it won't make good music," Craven said), navigated some voice-loosening acrobatics and, with an exacting-but-friendly Bosna at the helm, engaged in a variety of harmonizing techniques.

In four-part harmony, it's essential that everyone singing one part hits the same note at the same time — and enunciates, shapes and holds those notes in the same way.

It's among the many subtleties on which the group will be judged when it performs at the annual regional competition in Ocean City this April, an event it has never won but that has seen it improve its score every year since Bosna took over.

If it were to take first place among the groups in its size, it would receive an invitation to the 2012 international convention in Denver this fall, an event most of the 23,000 Sweet Adelines in some 500 chapters around the world would like to attend.

"Did we turn our diphthongs together?" Bosna asked after the six basses and four leads hit a stirring chord, then moved the whole chord up one step. "Remember, we get graded on everything."

The director then led the whole group through the 1944 Les Brown hit "Sentimental Journey," one of 30 songs in its repertoire. The basses drove a silken, textured sound as the baritones maneuvered up and down, barbershop-style.

The tune swung, the singers pivoted as one at the end of each phrase, and the Big-Band Era seemed to come to life in the modest basement space.

They hadn't sung it in months. Bosna couldn't resist clapping as the last chord resounded.

It's hard to believe, in a way, that while about half the group reads music, and a few have some formal training, many came to Chesapeake Harmony with no more background than singing in the shower.

"So many people think they can't sing," said Carol Gass, the chapter's team coordinator and an original member. "But the fact is, just about everyone can sing. Who can't carry the tune for 'Happy Birthday?'"

Many women, she added, believe they're not singers because they can't match the upper-register lead parts they hear on the radio. But a surprising number are natural fits in the bass or baritone categories, including more than half the members of Chesapeake Harmony.

"We love them," Gass said.

If newcomers are willing to sing the easiest part (the melody or lead) on their first night, and just try to master a simple part or two to start with, they'll find it easier to locate their true place –—and join in the luxuriant sounds — as they go, said Gass. Like the others in the group, she usually learns new songs and masters their parts by listening to tapes while driving.

As the evening went on, moods grew looser, even as the sounds grew tighter. As the chorus made its way through comic, patriotic and romantic fare, some of Bosna's preferences became clear — "I hate that de-bop, de-bop sound," she said of one musical reading, and she repeatedly invoked the precision of one of her favorite vocalists, Julie Andrews — but the ladies were in such a good mood no one resisted the constructive criticism.

"This is a lot of fun, but it takes a lot more work than you'd think," said Platt, who finally became a member last year after her sister, longtime member Peggy Coulter of Millersville, had tried to recruit her for half a decade.

By the end, one of the newcomers, Kate Duffy of Annapolis, seemed equal parts exasperated and intrigued.

Clutching a stack of sheet music, Duffy, a veteran of choir singing, complained good-naturedly that Bosna didn't do things exactly as the music called for. But that, she conceded, was part of the fun.

"You know that distinct sound — that 'barbershop' sound — when you hear it, but it's a sound you can't write down," she said. "It seems that it's something you learn by listening and doing."

She'd be back next week, she said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "We'd Like to Teach The World to Sing," a series of open houses with the Chesapeake Harmony Chorus

WHEN: 7:30-9:30 p.m. every Wednesday in January

WHERE: Historic Baldwin Hall, 1358 Millersville Road, Millersville

ADMISSION: Free and open to anyone who'd like to attend or sing

INFORMATION: chesapeakeharmony.com or 410-263-4420

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