R5 Barbershop Music in Westchester County

In our fast-paced, ever-changing world, it’s nice to know that not everything from the past is vanishing. Barbershop music, for instance, is alive and well in Westchester, thanks to the Westchester Chordsmen, a 60-man active chorus that’s been going strong since its founding in 1953. The chorus performs in ensembles of many sizes, but the iconic barbershop quartet seems to be the most popular. “Over the years, many quartets have formed from within the ranks of the chorus,” says President and Assistant Director Scott Colman, 59, who, by day, is a dentist in Scarsdale. “We currently have five quartets that can perform with us.”

Though barbershop music is considered “old fashioned” by many, Colman maintains people of all ages love it for its distinctive harmonies, and it’s not uncommon to see six-year-olds and octogenarians in the same audience. “The core base is in the thirty-five to sixty-five-year-old range,” Colman says.  So, what exactly is “barbershop music?” It is “truly an American style of music,” Colman says. “It is four-part harmony sung by four unaccompanied voices.” Though the exact origins of barbershop music are hard to pinpoint, the sound—whose signature characteristics are uncomplicated lyrics, singable melodies, and distinctive harmonies—took shape in the United States between the mid-19th century and the Roaring Twenties. One of the attractions of the genre to singers was that the harmonies were easily improvised; you don’t have to be a professional or schooled vocalist to sing barbershop.

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Yet, barbershop harmony differs from other types of harmony in its structure. “In barbershop harmony, the melody is sung by the lead, while the tenor part is sung above the lead,” Colman says. “The bass sings lower than the lead and the baritone provides the ‘in between’ notes that complete the chords, giving barbershop harmony its distinctive sound.” That sound includes a “ringing” chord, which is why barbershop singers sometimes refer to their craft as “ringing the chord.”  

The Westchester Chordsmen bring that distinctive sound to audiences in and around the county. The chorus not only performs in its own musical productions, it travels to venues and events around the county, including the Westchester Country Club Christmas Party, the Yonkers Summer Festival, Untermeyer Park and Lyndhurst outdoor concerts, New York Botanical Gardens Holiday Tree Lighting, and more. The chorus has performed all over the world—Russia, England, Italy, and even China—as well as at the White House, where they sang their Christmas repertoire in December, 1995.

The Westchester Chordsmen, Colman says, draws singers from all walks of life. “A former Mayor of Green Bay, Wisconsin, sings with us. Heart surgeons sing with us. The head doctor of Internal Medicine at Westchester Medical Center is a member, and an author/publisher sings with us.” If you’re interested in auditioning, or just want to find out about upcoming performances, visit chordsmen.org. Or attend a meeting: The Westchester Chordsmen meet every Monday night at White Plains Middle School (Highlands Campus) from 7 to 10 pm. “Anyone who wants to join may come and sing with us,” Colman says. “We welcome all guests.”

The Westchester Chordsmen attract singers from all walks of life.

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