Lopez Early College High School Head Choir Director Jason Whitney has become a vigorous advocate of barbershop music, embracing the genre for its ability to motivate singers and captivate audiences.
Whitney recalls being vaguely aware of barbershop singing when, in 2017, several members of the Lopez Varsity Choir started singing an a capella warmup at choir rehearsal. Interest developed after the group posted a YouTube video and it drew a “well done” comment from the Barbershop Harmony Society.
Before long auditions were being held for what became the Lopez UPBEAT! Mixed Barbershop Choir. Later, the group submitted an audition tape to the BHS and was selected to compete in the 2019 high school nationals at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. They won the high school national championship.
Although it seems a little bit like ancient history now, this year’s version of UPBEAT! was chosen to perform at the Texas Music Educators Association convention in San Antonio in February, right before the coronavirus pandemic hit Texas.
“When we came back there was the high school musical and benchmarking,” Whitney said. “After TMEA we had to put the brakes on barbershop singing so the kids could catch up on their other activities. Who knew it would be the last moment we sang together?”
Whitney said he had no background in barbershop singing but started researching the genre after interest arose. He discovered a style of singing that Lopez has been able to make its own.
“Barbershop singing appeals to my students as soon as they hear a song,” Whitney said. “It can’t help but put a smile on your face. To me it’s so much fun for the younger students. To be involved doesn’t require all sorts of classical training to be good at it. You don’t have to know any barbershop songs to enjoy it.”
According to the BHS: “Barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied vocal music characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a primarily homorhythmic (the same word sounds at the same time) texture. The melody is consistently sung by the lead (second tenor). The (first) tenor harmonizes above the melody, the bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes, and the baritone completes the chord. Barbershop harmony is rooted in African-American traditions of the late 1800s in the South.”
Whitney said barbershop “has allowed us an avenue to do something unique for our school, and even for the state of Texas.” He said a full-blown performing choir such as the one fielded by Lopez is rare across the Lone Star State.
In a guest blog on the BHS website, Whitney says when he started performing barbershop music with his students, it was like a breath of fresh air.
“I am a music educator because I want to show my students the doors that music can open in hopes that they will become lifelong singers and musicians. Barbershop does that for us. Our experience at Midwinter 2019 showed us that barbershop can transcend all age groups. But what I love the most, and what still brings a tear to my eye, even now, is that the passion for music-making among barbershoppers is unlike any other that I’ve ever experienced in my life,” he wrote.
See UPBEAT! perform Edelweiss: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOIwQLN5bm8