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."
All in the family
Peggy Gram, president of Sweet Adelines International, is typical of the singing sisterhood of schoolteachers, homemakers, lawyers and women of every vocation and age. When she's not working as chief deputy for the Arkansas secretary of state, she sings baritone with Little Rock's Top of the Rock Chorus and Timeless Quartet.
"It's women helping women and helping other women grow," says Gram, 60. "It's a way of life."
Gram was introduced to Sweet Adelines by her late mother. "In my era, you sang in your car while you traveled," says Gram, a 45-year member. "Someone would start a tune, and you'd find harmony."
Singing with her mom was the best possible way to bridge the generation gap, according to Gram. "We weren't mother-daughter when we were singing. She was the bass, I was the baritone," she recalls.
Multigenerational family ties are typical of Sweet Adelines, and many dub themselves "barbershop brats."
"I met my husband at a barbershop convention," says Stacey St. John, 35, of Cincinnati, who sings tenor for the Ohio-based Moxie Ladies, named Queens of Harmony in 2008. "It's who I am. My dad, my grandpa, my uncle, my husband's mom and dad, my husband all are in this world."
Regional and international competitions also develop a vast network of songbirds outside of family lineage. Before forming the award-winning Moxie Ladies in 2005, St. John and her singing partnersGretchen Holloway, 38, and Amy Leacock, 39, of Columbus, and Jennifer Perry-Edwards, 34, of Toledowere members of rival quartets. When they formed a foursome, the chemistry and commitment were immediate.
"I'm in love with the genre," says Perry-Edwards who, like Leacock, is a music teacher. "I want to make sure people hear it. It's a big part of Americana."
Consistent with their educational heritage, the women of Sweet Adelines know they must find ways to harmonize with younger generations.
The organization introduces young women to barbershop-style singing through Young Women in Harmony, while the Young Singers Foundation funds vocal education in schools and provides scholarships.
Many groups also stray from barbershop standards such as "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" and "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" to test their vocals on contemporary selections such as "Bohemian Rhapsody" by the rock group Queen and the Sister Sledge dance hit "We Are Family."
MAXX Factor, a top quartet from Baltimore, performed Sinatra classics during the international competition, but also experiments with theme songs from recent moviespretty much "anything that can be arranged in four-part harmony," says Valerie Hadfield-Rasnake, 40, who sings bass. Still, Hadfield-Rasnake says the songs of "bygone eras" work best. "Everyone is very familiar with the songs and they are very entertaining," she says.
Part of the desire for growth is to help younger women experience the joy of harmonizing with other female vocalists.
Andrea Hass, 50, of Colorado Springs, Colo., has done her part by recruiting daughters Emilie Hazelton, 24, and Heather Reimnitz, 26, to the 90-member Velvet Hills Chorus. "I joined the organization just a few days before giving birth to Emilie," says Hass, wearing the same dangling earrings and form-fitting black and teal gowns that her daughters wear to a performance.
For the youngest daughter, such glitzy outfits can feel like a "uniform," and the style of singing seems "old-fashioned" to friends who prefer hip-hop rhythms. But with Sweet Adelines, Hazelton gets to create both harmonies and memories with her mother and sister.
"When I first joined, I thought, 'Well this is a bunch of old ladies doing weird stuff,'" she says, as all three women burst into laughter. "Now I'm one of them."
Who are they?
One of the world's largest singing organizations for women, the 25,000-member Sweet Adelines International, based in Tulsa, Okla., is committed to advancing the musical art form of barbershop harmony through education and performance.