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Keepin' it Old School. Singing Barbershop in Halifax.

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The Atlantic Swells
The Atlantic Swells

I love to sing. I can’t help myself. My grandfather was a singer, unafraid to let loose with high, warbling, tenor-range notes. With a highball in his hand you could barely get him to stop singing. He’d sing Depression-era songs, songs that professed his love for trees, and Yiddish ditties. He’d sing to the television, to the radio, by himself in the kitchen. On Seder nights, when the whole family was tipsy off five cups of wine, we’d belt out centuries-old songs, joyfully banging out raucous rhythms with our fists bashing on the table, our spoons tinkling our cups, and our feet stomping on the floor.

We weren’t trained. We just found our range, and poured our hearts into it. Nobody got singled out. Nobody got chastised. There were no auditions. We just wanted to raise our voices and sang together, because it made us feel good. The songs were often mournful, the very mood of them recanting the sorrow of forced immigration, of Eastern European poverty, of hunger. But the singing of them suggested resilience, and permanence, and even of protest in the face of a world that would rather you silent. I miss those songs.

I love to sing, so I tracked down the Atlantic Swells. The Swells are Halifax’s barbershop chorus. They meet every Monday at 7:30pm in the auditorium behind the Canadian Martyr’s Church. I’d never thought much about barbershop. I knew that the classic arrangement was a quartet of men, a bass, a baritone, a lead, and a tenor, usually singing about love and happiness. It seemed like something out of a bygone era, when things were simpler.

The more I learn about the world, the more I learn that things were never really simpler, and that it has been the style of music itself that has kept things deceptively simple. The Barbershop style of four-part Acapella demands skill, but mostly asks you to become a piece of a greater whole by just opening your mouth and letting yourself go to the mystery, dare I say the healthy addiction, of Barbershop.

Barbershop relies heavily on Dominant 7th chords. When four voices hit the root, third, fifth, and seventh notes in a particular chord, they create a “ringing” chord. This ringing is a product of creating an overtone, and the presence of the overtone, plus four voices, makes a sound that many describe as the fifth voice, or the angel’s chord. It’s hard to explain on paper, but taking part in it is a very exciting, and easily attainable, high.

The mood on Mondays is incredibly positive, and refreshingly receptive. I am one of the youngest Barbershop singers, and many of the Swells have been singing Barbershop longer than I have been alive. In a world so awash in its own competitive individuality, being around a group of encouraging, elder, statesmen is almost reason enough to attend. Rather than being treated as an intruder in an exclusive club, I am immediately welcome with open arms.

Once the singing starts, the years melt away, and the whole auditorium is awash in men singing their hearts out. The songs are kind of sappy, but endearingly so, and you can almost imagine yourself waiting for your sweetheart under an apple tree, or proposing marriage on bended knee.

The Swells are led by musical director Paul Creaser. Paul is not only a capable and supportive director, he’s also got a wide ranging voice, and sings tenor in the chorus.

“This is my therapy.” says Creaser. “I’ve never had so much fun singing, and I’ve sung a lot. I’ve sung operas. I’ve made people cry with my voice, and I’ve made them laugh. And this is the best. It’s a shame it’s being lost on the next generation.”

With free membership, an open and nurturing environment, and empathetic and capable directorship, the greying and dwindling of the Swells is the one concern they can’t immediately solve. As Creaser notes:

“We’re standing on the shoulders of a society where everybody could sing, and we need to find ways to inspire a new generation of singers. This is Halifax’s best kept secret, and the best way to spend your Monday night.”

“We do something that you can’t find in other choirs, and that’s the harmonies. Most other choirs don’t lock chords like we do. Our chords are more focused, more directed.”

So the cat’s out of the bag. Every Monday at 7:30pm, 5900 Inglis Street, in the auditorium behind Canadian Martyr’s Church. Come sing Barbershop with your elders and your counterparts. See what it’s like to hit the angel’s chord

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What if you *really* can't sing?

Can a person come and listen? Or maybe just hum?

I would say yes, but...

I've only been going for three weeks. There's a tea/coffee break that happens around 9:00pm. I would imagine that there's always room for people to help out, and of course listen, in that capacity. I haven't seen anyone just sitting and listening, because its just too much fun. Maybe ask the contact on the Atlantic Swells website?

the motto

I've heard it put this way... "All you need is the 'wanna'; we'll teach you the howta "

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