The organisers encouraged passers-by to join in the singing.
It’s a part of growing up, a school ritual. It’s almost guaranteed that at some stage during your schooling you will be punished, sentenced to death by humiliation. It’s the only legal form of torture left in this century. Yes, there comes a moment in every young person’s life when they are forced to sing in front of their class to audition for the school choir.
Such a court was I summoned to (representing myself in the proceedings aged eight) when I barely made it through the first line of ‘Amazing Grace’, which, as I’m sure doesn’t need pointing out, is only two words long. And so it was the death sentence for me, my plight made all the more hilarious to my fellow classmates in the dock, as I had made the mistake of admitting earlier that I actually wanted to be in the choir – the ‘cool kids’ wisely opting to do the opposite in order to avoid the (now seemingly obvious) embarrassment.
Imagine my relief then (albeit 28 years later), whilst at the first Sutton Barbershop Harmony Festival on Sunday, award-winning barbershop harmony singer and coach, Timm Barkworth, 37, informed me that this was an altogether far too common problem in schools.
“There’s not that many people who are tone deaf,” he said. “You are able to teach, pretty much, anyone to sing.”
Timm, who was at the festival hosting a free singing workshop, cited one of his students on the day as an example. The student had been told by a teacher at a young age that they were tone deaf. “Which is absolute nonsense, because he’s singing like a lark in there.”
These are precisely the kind of misconceptions that led to the creation of the festival. A day of free barbershop singing entertainment in the town centre in order to battle old misgivings about singing and to inspire the public to join in, have fun and perhaps maybe even find their voice.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing barbershop singing is the fact that most people think it went the way of library memberships and living room hi-fi stereo sets. Which the man responsible for the creation of the festival, John Beesly, 53, readily agrees with.
“When I spoke to people about barbershop singing most of the people didn’t even know they existed,” he said.
“But barbershop carries on with lots of new songs being adapted in barbershop style and I thought we really ought to get out there and tell people about it.”
And get out there they did with no less than 120 singers from six different choruses entertaining passers-by in the town centre from 11:30-15.30. Choruses came from all over London to take part with names such as, Capital Chorus (West London); The North Surrey Downsmen; Surrey Harmony (women only); The Kentones (Bromley); Signature Singers (Buckinghamshire); Guildford Harmony (also women only).
The other problem facing barbershop singing is the stigma of age associated with it. The festival hopes to show the public that this hobby is not age specific, and it seems to be working already with a fair number of young people attending Timm’s workshop. “You need your youth in order to inspire and help dive that brighter, more ‘ringy’ kind of sound that only younger singers can sing with.”
So, if you, like me, were led to believe that you were tone deaf, why not challenge those assumptions? Timm says the best way to get involved is to simply search for local barbershop groups on the internet and call up your nearest club.
After spending the day amongst the festival and all the singers, I have to say it does sound great and I’m sure I saw a little of what John’s talking about when he said, “It’s almost like a drug. Honestly, when you hit a really spot-on chord it’s a tremendous high.”
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