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Sonoma County barbershop singers seek harmony across generations

The Redwood Chordsmen add some theatricality to a song during rehearsal at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Santa Rosa on Nov. 13, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Published: Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 3:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 3:50 p.m.

A more harmonious world? That’s a goal of all manner of human fellowships in Sonoma County.

A distinction of the one Ray Crowder most enjoys is that it can sing “As Time Goes By” in four parts so sweetly that it can bring tears to your eyes.

Crowder is 76, perhaps a bit older than the average age of his fellows in the Redwood Chordsmen. The a cappella choir’s typical audience may be on the older side, too, but the Chordsmen are always reaching out to young people in hopes of attracting them to the joy of barbershop singing.

“We want the kids to know there’s more than rock and rap and hip-hop,” said Crowder. A retired Santa Rosa banker, he has been singing for 40 years with the Redwood Chordsmen chorus and its subset of barbershop quartets.

Founded in 1965, the group has achieved some success drawing in younger members such as 16-year-old Koty Hall, a student at Rohnert Park’s Pathways Charter School.

“I really don’t get any other chance to sing with a group,” the teen said at a recent Wednesday evening Chordsmen rehearsal at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Rincon Valley.

Introduced to barbershop harmony by his grandfather, Hall said he aspires to get better and eventually to become a member of a registered quartet.

“There are goals you can set for yourself,” he said.

Barbershop singing dates to the late 1800s and was organized in Oklahoma 75 years ago by the intentionally oddly named Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America — now the Barbershop Harmony Society.

This brand of singing is a team sport. The approximately 40 active Chordsmen travel often to competitions that score barbershop choirs and quartets on their music selection, how well and clearly they sing and the degree to which they bring a song to life through facial and hand expression, body language and verve.

“What’s missing?” the Chordsmen's highly expressive director, Phil DeBar, asked after halting the singing at a rehearsal.

“Attitude!” he declared.

Barbershop singers tell of the thrill of hitting a song out of the park. It happens when all four parts — tenor, lead (or alto/countertenor), baritone, and bass — strike their notes so right-on that the harmonious convergence seems to produce additional notes.

“We’re just singing four notes but we’re sparking eight or nine,” enthused the Chordsmen’s Adam Ehrenpfort. He’s a 28-year-old Santa Rosa High grad who also plays the trombone professionally and sings barbershop with the internationally acclaimed Westminster Chorus of Orange County.

Ehrenpfort sings four-part harmony for the musical challenge and thrill, and because he finds it a terrifically fun thing to do with other guys.

“It’s kind of like a fraternity,” he said. “There’s a real sense of brotherhood.”

That is a big part of the reason that 89-year-old Lynn “Brit” Brittan of Sebastopol has sung barbershop, both in Sonoma County and elsewhere, since 1958.

“The music brings you in,” he said. “The camaraderie keeps you in.”

Though the Redwood Chordsmen is only for males, four-part a cappella harmony certainly is not.

Each Wednesday night, as the Chordsmen belt out old favorites and savor a boys’ night out at the Masonic hall off Sonoma Highway, the women of the Pacific Empire Chorus sing their hearts out and enjoy each other at the First Presbyterian Church on Petaluma’s B Street.

When the Chordsmen wrap up a rehearsal, it’s traditional that director DeBar joins the guys on the risers and everybody links arms for the final, fraternal song of the night.

“Keep the whole world singing ... Carry, carry your part ... Keep a melody ringing ... In your heart.”

(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.)

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