Singing in the shower may not be a surefire predictor of a successful vocal career, but it could be enough to open a door to one busy vocal group in the area.
One thing that has continued to unite members of the Princeton Garden Statesmen a cappella group throughout its 50-year history is their simple love of singing, and there’s always an open spot for newcomers with the same passion and ability to carry a tune.
The Statesmen have been entertaining music lovers in central New Jersey with their brand of four-part barbershop harmony since 1969. The chorus consists of about 20 active members who stay busy performing at various venues and events throughout the year, including holiday and dinner shows as well as business and community events.
On a particularly cold night in November, the group was polishing its vocals at a local school for an upcoming holiday show to be held Saturday, Dec. 7 at the Nottingham Ballroom in Hamilton.
The show, which will also feature the Somerville High School Chorus and Quartets, will start at 2 p.m. Tickets are available online or at the door.
Coaching the men that night was Katie Blackwood, an accomplished vocal coach and singer, who helps direct the Statesmen with Jack Pinto, himself an internationally recognized teacher and performer. Both Blackwood and Pinto are Hamilton residents.
As a coach, Blackwood is tough, with an ear that can pinpoint the slightest deviation in vocal alignment. Exactitude is necessary, she said, because barbershop style is not easy to perfect.
“Barbershop is technical,” she explained. “It’s a little different than some other genres of music that we sing. You have to stack four parts on every word and on every chord, all at the same time, and make sure it rings. It’s more technical than anything I’ve ever sung.”
“It’s a difficult thing,” vocalist Dick Nurse said. “It’s more difficult than other types of music. It’s a challenge to come every week. I sang doo-wop. That’s easy compared to this.”
The portrait of barbershop singing has typically featured four men singing together, each with his own vocal role: lead, tenor, baritone or bass. The lead sings the melody, the tenor sings harmony above the lead, the bass sings the lowest root notes, and the baritone sings the in-between notes that complete the chords.
Some barbershop groups, like the Statesmen, have more than four members and as a chorus can include multiple leads and several baritones and basses. This choral structure creates a more dynamic performance but nailing down the harmony can be tricky.
It’s a challenge members of the Statesmen say they embrace.
“It’s the most fun thing,” said Hugh Devine, a 47-year member from Plainsboro. “When it sounds good, it’s great.”
“I don’t play an instrument, but harmonizing is like making music with your voice. It’s rewarding, and it’s pleasant,” said Joe Ciccione, an 18-year member.
Despite their vocal training and years of involvement with the chorus, longtime members admit they are still learning new ways to strengthen their vocals.
“I think these guys are forever-students,” Blackwood said. “I always say, if you’re not learning something in this craft, then go bowling.”
Barbershop-style singing has a long history in America dating back to the 1800s, if not earlier. Modern arrangers have sought to adapt songs from other genres, like pop, to barbershop. The Statesmen themselves have performed music by the Beatles as well as the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers, among others.
“Music of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s really do barbershop well,” Blackwood said. “A lot of music can barbershop, it just depends on what it is.”
While the goal is to make music that people will enjoy, at the end of the day it’s the friendships that keep members come back week after week to see each other.
“I’ve heard it summed up like this: People come for the music, but stay for the camaraderie,” said Tom Befi, a member from West Windsor.
“It’s about guys getting together and singing, and not just to talk,” said Nurse, who lives in Franklin Park. “Most of the things we do together—[instead of] sitting around talking and arguing about something—we’re singing. We’re having a good time.”
Blackwood’s mother and father were both in barbershop, and they competed internationally. “For me, it’s always been about family and support,” he said. “I remember growing up, some of those people in the chorus with my parents were the people at my house when we needed help. They were the ones taking me to cheerleading or to my music lessons.”
While barbershop singing has been seen as strictly a male pastime, women’s organizations are available, including the Sweet Adelines International. In 2018, the Barbershop Harmony Society, which has over 800 chapters around the world, opened its ranks to women.
“It’s an incredible support system, especially in the women’s organization and especially for the women who have had breast cancer,” said Blackwood, who has worked with the Sweet Adelines for more than 20 years. “It’s just been a great community to pull in people and to help out each other.”
The Statesmen have won a number of accolades, including being named Atlantic Division Intermediate Chorus Champions. In 2015, they were named Northern Division Mid-Atlantic Chorus Champions.
Anyone interested in joining the Statesmen can attend one of its weekly rehearsals, which are held Tuesdays from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., usually at Community Middle School in Plainsboro. Those interested should first call the Statesmen at (888) 636-4449 to confirm the rehearsal location.
Blackwood said the ability to read music is not necessary to join—only the ability to carry a tune.
“Anyone who likes to sing and who can carry a tune, we teach them how to do it,” she said.