Steel City Harmonizers relishing harmonious Monday night ritual
More than 20 men locked their eyes on Harrison King III as he led them through “Silent Night,” a song the Steel City Harmonizers will perform during Saturday's Christmas Parade in McKeesport.
The barbershop-style version they practiced on Monday in Trinity Christian School in Forest Hills sounded sweet and somber. The men swayed, and some stood on tiptoe as they slid into each phrase of the tune. Then, there it was — the note where all four parts of the arrangement worked some kind of acoustical miracle.
The technical term for the harmonization is a ringing chord, but it's also known as the angel's voice, the fifth voice and the barbershop seventh. It makes the typical barbershop arrangement sound like a chorus of mustachioed angels.
The Steel City Harmonizers meet every Monday in the school on Ridge Avenue and are among at least 10 barbershop chorus groups active in the Pittsburgh area. Their membership at 41 singers is at its highest level in years, and they invited guests this week to try barbershop singing.
For members, it's easy to explain why singing in this style is so much fun.
“The camaraderie of being able to hang out with other folks who like to sing, that regularity of being to once a week get together and not worry about anything else but just make beautiful music together, it's very therapeutic — cathartic,” said King of Heidelberg, who sings baritone and is assistant director of the harmonizers.
“It's what I look forward to. I get to start my week every Monday night here.”
The group is a charter member of the Barbershop Harmony Society, an international organization with more than 25,000 members that is celebrating its 75th year. The Steel City Harmonizers have existed for about a dozen years.
The group takes part in several singing contests each year, including the Barbershop Harmony Society's national competition. The harmonizers compete in and are members of the Johnny Appleseed District, made up of 50 groups in Midwestern states.
Similar to collegiate athletic conferences, groups in the regional district compete for a chance to face the best in the world. The Johnny Appleseed District is broken down into divisions, and the Steel City Harmonizers were champions in their division in 2012 and 2013.
At the nationals four years ago in Portland, Ore., Daniel Krackhardt became hooked on barbershop. The Fox Chapel Area High School senior was 14, and was watching his cousin's quartet perform and win. The youngest member of the harmonizers, he plans to major in acting in college.
When barbershoppers get together, they tend to drift into groups of four and sing at random. That happened after Monday's main rehearsal, and it's a phenomenon that Krackhardt, who sings bass, enjoys.
“I sang a tag once with a guy from Sweden, a guy from New Zealand and a guy from Spain,” he said. “We didn't know one another. Half of us didn't speak English, but we all knew one tag and we all sang together.” A tag is a part of a song.
Krackhardt and his friends have their own barbershop quartet, Blocked. Block is a term used to describe a way to build a chord.
Luke Reynolds, who sings lead, joined the Steel City Harmonizers in September 2012. After Reynolds moved to Edgewood, a neighbor, Jim Thompson, invited him to an open house.
“I never even knew barbershop was still a thing. I was awestruck,” Reynolds said. The web developer's only musical experience was with karaoke, but he fell in love with the genre.
“The one thing about barbershop music that makes it different from other types of music is barbershop is for the everyday person,” he said. “Anyone can sing it.”
Joe Novelly of Murrysville, the harmonizers' vice president of chapter development, has been singing barbershop for 32 years and considers harmony and music a big part of his life.
“I want to be Frank Sinatra,” Novelly said. “In my dreams.”
Bob Pajich is a freelance writer.