Gloria Densham's job is to whinny, with equine majesty, in the middle of "Sleigh Ride."
But at a recent rehearsal of the Sweet Adelines Chorus of Mission Viejo, what emerges from Densham is more like a croak. She and her fellow singers erupt with laughter at the sound, so jarring in the midst of the tight four-part harmony.
"I'm a little rusty," concedes Densham of San Juan Capistrano, who has sung bass with the all-woman barbershop chorus for nine years. "It's been a year since I've whinnied."
It isn't the only laughter for the chorus members, who are practicing their holiday repertoire on a drizzly evening at La Paz Intermediate School in Mission Viejo.
"If they don't laugh at least once a night, I'm not doing my job," says chorus director Bonnie Sherburn.
"This is their one night out for these women to almost be selfish, after getting the kids up, cooking dinner or going to work. Singing allows them to work on an aspect of their lives, just for them."
But amid the camaraderie, the 50-member chorus works hard at their Tuesday-night rehearsals. Sherburn's goal is to double the membership of the Mission Viejo group, one of two female barbershop choruses in Orange County. She's hoping the group will put on a good showing in April at the regional competitions in Phoenix.
On this night, Sherburn is fine-tuning the sound in preparation for a concert for ARK Services for Abused Children in Santa Ana. The director says some of the vowels in "Christmas Bells Are Ringing" need work.
"One of the beauties of barbershop harmonies is that chords properly sung create an overtone, a fifth note," she says. "It creates a tangible level of excitement to hear it. But some of the things that interfere with that is when vowels are not sung uniformly and vocal production is not used properly."
Sherburn, 43, of Los Angeles, knows of what she speaks: She is not only a contest judge but also a "queen of harmony," having won that title at an international competition in 1990 with her own Adelines quartet, Panache. In 1970 she put out a solo album on Atlantic Records of her rock 'n' roll and folk singing, and she currently has three barbershop CDs on the market.
As director of the Harborlites in Huntington Beach for 10 years before coming to Mission Viejo, Sherburn helped that Adelines group win a regional championship while boosting its membership from 35 to 115.
Nationwide, the Sweet Adelines, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, has about 32,000 members in 700 choruses. The Orange County groups are among 22 choruses in Region 21, whose boundaries stretch roughly from northern Orange County south to Mexico and encompass Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Texas.
On Jan. 9 at 7:30 p.m., the Mission Viejo group will have a guest night at its rehearsal site, part of its ongoing membership drive. Costumed members will sing for their guests and explain barbershop harmony and the four parts: lead, tenor, baritone and bass.
Auditions are formal and are taken seriously, but Sherburn has never seen anyone fail.
"We get women from their early 20s to their late 60s, and we realize that often their singing voices are rusty because they haven't sung since high school," Sherburn says. "But we give them an environment to succeed."
Diana Schwartz is among those in the midst of auditioning.
"I'm kind of nervous, but I'm excited because the director is very talented," says Schwartz, of Rancho Santa Margarita. "She's really good at communicating, and she puts the chorus first, not just individuals."
Friendships that develop are for many the most appealing aspect about barbershop singing.
"Some of my favorite people are in the group, and it's the neatest hobby I've ever undertaken," Densham says.
"It has all my favorite things--singing, dancing and putting on pretty costumes."