Women's singing group teaches barbershop harmony and music appreciation
One collective breath after Michelle Hunget blows into a pitch pipe to set the key of B-flat, her Kansas-based quartet launches into "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," blending voices in rich a cappella harmony to perform the lively barbershop-style standard.
"Never could carry a tune, never knew where to start," sing members of the group Zing! on their way to being named the world's top quartet of Sweet Adelines International during the singing organization's 2009 competition last October in Nashville, Tenn.
The tenor voice of Hunget, 44, of Olathe, Kan., resonates with the vocals of lead singer Susan Ives, 51, of Tecumseh, Kan.; baritone Mary Rhea, 52, of Norman, Okla.; and bass Melynnie Williams, 50, of Newton, Kan., resulting in a sound called "ringing the chords"when voices blend to create overtones, almost as if a complete chorus is on the stage.
But it's just four women wearing matching smiles and lime-green outfits, from their retro paisley tops to bejeweled necklines and crystal earrings, combining their vocals and showmanship to earn the title of Queens of Harmony, with accompanying crowns.
The honor is the reward for taking turns rehearsing in each other's hometowns every other weekend for the last year, during which the women perfected their vocal harmonies while forging lifelong friendships. "You can't make harmony with people you don't like," Rhea says.
Finding their voice
Using their voices as instruments, Sweet Adelines have showcased a distinctly American style of four-part a cappella singing for 65 years and serenaded audiences at venues ranging from retirement homes to Carnegie Hallall while building a sisterhood of women who love to sing.
Those bonds have been nurtured since July 13, 1945, when Edna Mae Anderson of Tulsa, Okla., invited a few women to her home to sing together with the same "chord-ringing, fun-filled harmony" that their husbands enjoyed as members of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, known today as the Barbershop Harmony Society.
That core group of women invited all "barbershop wives" in the area to assemble a few weeks later at the Hotel Tulsa, where the men had formed their organization six years earlier. There, a Sweet Adelines chapter of 85 women was born.
Anderson identified the group's original purpose as educational"to teach and train its members in musical harmony and appreciation"and the goal apparently struck a chord with music-loving women across America. By 1949, Sweet Adelines had grown to 1,500 members in 35 chapters, with quartets and choruses in 14 states.
Today, Sweet Adelines remains based in Tulsa, but the organization's collective voice is heard across the globe under its motto to "harmonize the world." Its 25,000 members comprise more than 1,200 quartets and 600 chorusesmore than 75 percent based in the United States.
"It's a good, clean, gorgeous hobby," says Mary Jo Pardee, 79, of Summit, N.J., who was 17 when she became a member in the late 1940s. "It keeps you young, because when you are singing, you are bringing more oxygen to your brain."
Pardee added her voice to Sweet Adelines after growing up in Ohio singing harmony in her home, where she sang tenor, her younger brother lead, older brother bass, and their dad baritone.
"It's a unique American art form," says Pardee, who calls harmonizing contagious. "If you get bitten by the bug, come hell or high water you get to rehearsal every week."