A group of 65 women stands on creaky risers in a spare room of , chatting amongst one another and fiddling with their cell phones. Above the noisy hum, a set of speakers blasts crackly feedback while someone tries to tune them. The group breaks into laughter each time the speakers blare.
All at once, choral director Jim Arns lifts his hands, the room falls silent and perfect, four-part harmony pours out from the group.
The women sway in time to the music, snapping their fingers to the beat or bouncing lightly on their knees in unison. They step down off the risers to swing choreographed kicks at the front of the room and finish one tune with their arms raised to the ceiling, fingers spread wide. Some wear gold medals around their necks.
They are the Melodeers, an all female barbershop chorus with six international awards to its credit. The roughly 150 members come from as far as Michigan and Indiana to rehearse at St. Peter Community Church in Northbrook every Wednesday night (although the group just learned that, due to the building’s recent sale, they’ll have to find a space to replace the rehearsal hall they’ve used at St. Peter for decades.)
“Weather permitting,” Melodeer Sally Young carpools two hours with a handful of other singers from southwest Michigan. The rehearsals typically last from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.
“It’s probably about 2 a.m. by the time I get home,” Young says. But, “It’s worth the sacrifice when you know that you’re doing something so high level,” she adds.
Six-Time International Champions
The Melodeers—most of whom have day jobs or are retired—are at the top of their game. In October, the group won its sixth international chorus championship at a competition in Houston, TX, meaning judges considered it the best group out of some 700 women’s barbershop choruses throughout the world.
As new member Aviva Mastandrea, of Wauconda, explains it, barbershop chorus combines hand gestures and dance moves with four-part harmony that uses unusual and unexpected chords.
“It’s really different and exciting,” says Mastandrea, who was a high school choir teacher before becoming an ultrasound tech. “I think they’re richer chords than people are used to hearing.”
And the hand movements?
“As a performer, it adds a whole other level of complexity,” says Mastandrea. But the group members are there because they want the challenge.
“If you’re a competitor at heart, it’s really the ultimate experience of singing,” says Melodeer Carol Thompson, who drives two hours from South Bend, IN, each week.
Thompson is a business coach by day, so on Thursdays, she tries to schedule her morning appointments a little later in the day, given she usually crawls into bed around 2:30 a.m. after rehearsal.
“It’s a commitment,” she notes.
But Thompson and other members say it’s a commitment that’s well worth it—not just for the accolades and gold medals but for the camaraderie among the group, some of whom have been singing together for four decades or more. In fact, the Melodeers celebrated their 50th anniversary last year.
‘It’s So Empowering For Women’
“You come in here and you’re feeling kind of down, you’re feeling kind of cranky, and it’s uplifting,” says Julie Kendrick, a resident of Tower Lakes who has been singing with the Melodeers for 41 years.
Kendrick first joined the group at the suggestion of a coworker when she worked the night shift proofreading tax law in the northwest suburbs. Fifteen years after she started, Kendrick was elected president of the Sweet Adelines, an international group of women’s barbershop choruses. As president, she traveled to almost every state and several different countries to chair meetings and host seminars.
“I think it’s so empowering for women,” Kendrick said. “I really do think I owe my career to what I learned in Sweet Adelines.”
Although she’s now retired, Kendrick spent more than 25 years working for an Arlington Heights-based nonprofit, the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology. She eventually worked her way up to become executive director.
“Now it kind of works in reverse,” says Kendrick—explaining that today, many women bring their career experience to executive level positions in the Sweet Adelines organization.
‘Did the Basses Make It On the Bus?’
While the members are serious, the atmosphere of a typical rehearsal is also fun.
During a recent rehearsal at St. Peter Community Church, Arns halted the chorus halfway through “Jingle Bells.”
“Try it again. That was either a wrong note, or,” he breaks off, interrupted by a nod from a member of the chorus.
“Yes,” he concludes, indicating that it was, indeed a wrong note. The group laughs briefly before taking the song from the top.
Later, Arns stops the chorus again while they rehearse a new song for the first time.
“Did the basses make it on the bus?” he says. “You know what, I’m going to come closer to sing bass.”
And he does, conducting the chorus with one hand while he stands among the group to sing bass. (The names for the parts in a women's barbershop chorus correspond with the men's parts, including "bass" and baritone"--although the women's parts are sung much higher.)
“I want each chorus member to have an intense, rewarding, and fun experience,” explains Arns. “We gather each week to make the best barbershop sound we can, using and building our vocal skills, and having artistic abandon in making the printed page of music come alive.”
Barbershop is A Family Affair
For member Helen Giallombardo, barbershop chorus is not just a personal tradition but a family affair. The Glenview resident met her husband, Jay, through a local singing group in 1985. He is now director of the New Traditions Chorus, an all men’s barbershop chorus that also practices at St. Peter Community Church.
“It’s been a real lifestyle for us,” she says.
Taking their kids to barbershop conventions, where it seems that lost wallets are always returned, provided them with an example of “how to comport yourself in a concert style,” as Giallombardo puts it. Barbershop also gave their kids a model of how hard work pays off.
“I always thought it was a good thing for our kids to see,” she says. “If you work hard enough at something, you can be really good at it—even world champions.”
Giallombardo’s daughter, Anna, who is in college, recently started singing with the Melodeers last spring. It only made sense, given how much four-part harmony has been a part of her life.
“I couldn’t go a day without listening to choral or barbershop,” she says. “Once you’re bitten by the barbershop bug, you’re pretty much involved.”
That's a sentiment most members of this 50-year-old chorus would share.