The 40 members of The Hillsdale Town and Country Barbershop Chorus share a love for barbershop-style music and call upon the ubiquitous Hillsdale city motto, “It’s the people,” to explain their commitment to the Chorus — some of whom have been involved for nearly half a century.
For many of these veteran singers, time’s passing finds them gray-haired but with voices that command well-plied vocal chords. Formed in the late 1980s from already existing chapters in the surrounding cities, the Hillsdale barbershop chapter performs an average of 20 performances, or “Singouts,” each year. They sing at venues like the Hillsdale County Fair, Mrs. Stocks’ Park, and church events. With their spring concert on May 7, every Tuesday evening the Perennial Park Senior Center resounds with distinctly agrarian-themed songs as the Chorus rehearses the songs of their melodrama “Dire Days at the Dairy.”
Barbershop music is distinct for its “closed harmony,” where four voice parts form a capella closed harmony. With the Barbershop Harmony Society headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, participating in a barbershop quartet or chorus can be a well-organized affair in the United States and a hobby rift with competition internationally.
Don Slamka, director of The Hillsdale Town and Country Barbershop Chorus since 2010, was a member of the 2003 International Gold Medal Quartet, a competition held in Montreal, Canada.
“This is one of the finest groups of men I’ve ever been associated with,” Slamka said. “The fact that we make music together is an added bonus.”
“We celebrate the joys and sorrows of life with each other, 80th birthdays, funerals, and grandchildren,” Slamka added. “These are the guys that build cities, and move walls for each other.”
Members credit Slamka for raising the quality of music produced by the Chorus. With such a large group, Slamka records himself singing the bass, baritone, lead, and tenor parts of the quartet onto a CD so that each section of the Chorus can practice separately.
A select group of singers also meets with Slamka following practice to highlight weak areas to be rehearsed in the following week.
For the majority of members, their voices were first tuned as children. Roger Brook, the chapter’s secretary, has sung in different musical groups his whole life.
“This is my first barbershop quartet and I enjoy singing with this group,” he said. “It’s challenging to get the harmony because we are trying to sing four different parts in the last two voice types, tenor and bass.”
One of Brook’s favorite Chorus performances was “Malt Shop Memories,” a 1950 – 60s-themed performance in which the guys dressed up for a high school reunion of that time period. Recalling that he wore a jean jacket, Brook said that performance theme “resonated well with this group because most of us are in the 50-to-70-year-old range.”
For the last 12 years, Gary Meyer has been traveling from Montpellier, Ohio, to attend the Tuesday evening practices.
“This is a tri-state chorus. We have members from Ohio, Michigan, and even Indiana,” Meyer said. “After spending so much time together and traveling to concerts together, above all, barbershop is a family.”
Promising “Udder Mayhem” on May 7, the Chorus will feature actors from the Sauk Theatre and Don Slamka singing with the original gold-medal-winning quartet.