Wednesday 13 December 2017

Hitting the high notes

Singing isn't just a pleasant hobby, it's good for your mental health. But can even the tone-deaf join in? Our reporter took lessons to find out

Melodic: Grainne Coyne joins the IABS singing workshop. Photo: Alison Lareo.
Melodic: Grainne Coyne joins the IABS singing workshop. Photo: Alison Lareo.
Bob Croft demonstrates how it's done as Barry Clinton looks on. Photo: Alison Laredo.
Grainne Coyne performs a singing exercise. Photo: Alison Laredo.

Grainne Coyne

Everyone can sing a little bit, but for most of us, reaching those high notes - or indeed any notes - can be something of a struggle.

I definitely fit into the latter category, but last Saturday I stepped out of my comfort zone when I tried to keep up with the quartets performing at the IABS (Irish Association of Barbershop Singers) convention.

Hosted by the Mayo International Choral Festival, I was invited to take part in one of main events - the 'Dare to Sing Barbershop' singing lessons. If I'm honest, I was more than a little nervous.

But I need not have worried. By the end of the two hour session I was in an alto group harmonising, and by lunchtime I somehow managed to hold my own singing with the 2010 International First Place Quartet champions, Storm Front.

Not how I would usually spend my Saturdays, but I would be lying if I said I didn't have fun.

This wasn't my first experience with harmonised singing. As a child I participated in the National Children's Choir and I must have been good because I was initially placed in the descants, or the high note groups, but as I got older I was moved down to the bass group.

Neither group is an easy place to be; you have to be able to hold both high and low notes while harmonising with the other sections of the choir and keeping time with the conductor.

Like lots of other young people, I also participated in musical and church choirs in secondary school, but somehow along the way I lost interest in choral singing. I can't pinpoint the reason - was it lack of time or just a lack of self-confidence? Probably the latter but it was something that I had to overcome.

Lucky for me everyone was all too excited about my attendance and made me feel quite at ease about my lack of a cappella singing. I was first introduced to the 2011 National Barbershop winners, Cork Quartet group, Déjà vu.

"Barbershop is four people singing four different notes at one time unaccompanied," Amy Mockler the Déjà Vu baritone explained. "So there are no other musical instruments, it's just vocal."

Both barbershop quartets and choruses contain four parts; the baritone, tenor, bass and lead. But while a quartet completely relies on one person to represent a singing line, three to four people would usually represent one part in a chorus.

"It's not men in striped jackets, it's not the typical image that you have, it's actually great fun", says Sharon, the lead singer of Déjà Vu. "It's a great challenge. You could break all the rules. Literally you could pick songs and just arrange them."

Challenge was an appropriate word. I definitely didn't feel ready to sing barbershop, but IABS judges and, that morning, barbershop teachers, Mike Warner, Bob Croft and Barry Clinton made the experience an enjoyable one.

I didn't know what to expect. Maybe it would be like Glee, where everyone would hash out their problems through song?

I certainly didn't expect the lessons to start with Tai Chi. But it made sense because not only did it calm my nerves, the movements also ensured I had the correct posture for singing.

From there we then moved on to breathing exercises and the part I was dreading the most, actually singing. To my surprise I was able to keep up, initially. The vocal exercises weren't too challenging and I was able to hold notes without feeling too out of breath. I particularly enjoyed trilling and learning about different pitches.

But those notes weren't too high; the real challenge lay after the coffee break.

After explaining the importance of the larynx when it comes to singing, director of Cambridge Chord Company, Bob Croft, asked participants to join their retrospective quartet positions. I immediately felt out of my depth.

But the look of fear was probably evident as Barry came to my aid and helped me keep on track with my fellow singers.

I was soon assigned to the alto group which would be fine, if I were able to reach those high notes. But thanks to the support of my fellow alto singers, we managed to create a beautiful harmonisation with the help of the other group singers participating.

Despite struggling with some high notes I was in shock when the lessons were over and even more surprised that I was enjoying myself.

Barbershop is no easy feat requiring constant rehearsals as well as practising an act itself for stage competitions. But like many things barbershop is something that has to be enjoyed and it's easy to understand why. Through speaking to various quartet groups it's not just the adrenalin that comes from performing, but there's a special therapeutic value that seems to come with barbershop singing as well.

"What I enjoy about it so much, it's a significant departure from what I do for a day job," says Syd Libsack of American Quartet group, Storm Front explaining his participation. "I'm a banker. So having the opportunity to express an artistic side of your brain, where you have that opportunity to perform in front of people and work on a craft."

English Quartet, Hot Note also agrees with their fellow barbershop performers. The ladies quartet which is also competing at the Sweet Adelines International competition in Las Vegas, believes the comradeship that barbershop provides is an important one.

"The combination of friendship and rehearsal can have an amazing effect on you." Gaynor Schofield of Hot Note explains. "Just turning up to a weekly rehearsal, to something that's not just quite like it in your life."

The popularity of group singing seems to be spreading with the likes of Glee, Pitch Perfect and even Gareth Malone's The Naked Choir, all showcasing the community spirit and talent involved with a cappella singing. This was also reflected at the IABS convention with around 500 barbershop singers performing at the three day event.

"The standard of the Irish singing in quartet and choruses has gone up and up," says Bob Croft. "So it's really spreading, barbershop is on the move and we're very pleased to see it flourishing in Ireland." So will I be joining my own barbershop quartet anytime soon? Probably not, but I would be lying if I said I didn't leave the Royal Theatre a little happier last Saturday. It reminded me that everyone needs their own form of creative outlet, from forming a harmonisation in a quartet, or even joining your local choir.

Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, and sing.

Visit to find out more. The Mayo International Choral Festival is also running a singing festival from May 21 -24. To find out more information visit

Upbeat: why you should join a choir

Mental health

Hot Note, Storm Front and Déjà Vu all agree that group singing is great for your mental health. Studies seem to back this up too, with the Oxford Brookes University survey concluding that choir singing is the most "cost-effective way to improve people's well-being". Gaynor Schofield of Hot Note says: "Singing is very therapeutic anyway; it's good for you which is a well-known medical fact. Singing is physically and emotionally belonging to a large group, that kind of support mechanism that you get."


Group singing is not only good for you emotional well being, but it's great for your heart too. Björn Vickhoff at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, discovered that the heart rates of people who sing in a choir together can also quickly synchronise with one another. The Gothenburg team believes the calming effect that choir singing creates can cause low variability in heart rate and in turn can even help with blood pressure.

Jim Clark, the lead singer of Storm Front says: "People who are singing and doing community singing together tend to do have lower instances of illness. Just something that's very human, it's in our DNA."

Irish Independent

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