Big Face, Little Face
An Interview with Ken Potter
Lou Tedesco, Oct 11, 2006
It's Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and Ken Potter is standing in front of the six-time international chorus champion Masters of Harmony. He is fluid, demanding and confident. The energy level is “spooling up” and Ken is a large part of the preparation for an intense rehearsal. When he finally hands the chorus over to Mark Hale, he will have succeeded in sweeping the mental cobwebs from over 100 men who seem to need recharging to get their performance motors humming. "Big face, little face," says Kenny, as he leads the chorus from one extreme energy level to another.
Who is this complex, wiry disciplinarian, a somewhat private young man whose "game face" belies the personal joy he experiences while exhorting and demanding skillful participation from every riser slug? To help answer that question, I met with Ken for over an hour of interview. While huddled in one of the Town Center Hall upstairs break-out rooms, Ken thoughtfully and sometimes wistfully related how music and, most importantly, barbershop music shapes his life.
Born and raised in Billings, Montana, Ken was surrounded by music from childhood. His parents, both musicians and symphony patrons, created an environment of almost constant performance. The entire family was involved in either vocal or instrumental music. A grandmother played piano for silent movies. For over eighteen years, Ken participated in family music, with the sounds of sax, piano, drums, clarinet, and violin resonating in his home. Duets were the norm. He was fortunate that his high school provided chances to study and expand his music environment, including his first barbershop quartet. It was no surprise to Ken or anyone else that his college pursuit would be music art forms. However, discouraged with the limited educational opportunities in Montana, he moved to Los Angeles to finish his music degree at California State University, Long Beach, with emphasis in vocal performance.
The prospects of a major city created a "candy store" environment that, in addition to Ken’s music study, began shaping him as a person. His work with the Masters and other Los Angeles chapters is currently a big focus in his life. He credits Dr. Greg Lyne as a huge early influence.
After the move to L.A., Ken's maturation as a barbershop phenomenon accelerated at high speed, including writer, arranger, coach, teacher, director, and his work to become a Society Arrangement judge. He smiles as he admits to being over-indulged in barbershop music but muses, "There is something captivating about the male quartet sound – it's almost spiritual." Not everyone remembers that Ken was the original tenor for Metropolis and a member in Far Western District quartets Buck Thirty-Nine, Late Night Barbershop, Mach 4, Vocal Union and District Champion Sam's Club. He is excited about his current quartet Expedia, which won the 2006 SoCal West Division Quartet Contest.
Outside the world of four-part harmony, Ken participates in church choral music and organ instrumental. He confides that his life may be out of balance – primarily because he has a tough time saying "no." He complains, "There does not seem to be any room to explore other relationships or any other pursuit unless it involves music." However, he does fuss about the remodeling of his home in Long Beach. When pressed about goals and objectives, he quickly mentions completing the Arrangement judge training program and an ambitious effort to become a sought-after arranger of barbershop music. A rapidly increasing activity for him, he describes the arranging skills necessary to join the ranks of a David Wright, Aaron Dale or Dave Briner, as possessing an "auditory imagination." He hopes to break into that "rarefied club" some day.
Ken's commitment to the Masters of Harmony is uncompromising. He related, "Everybody has a reason to be in the Masters. I believe in the brotherhood and am grateful for the confidence the Music Committee and the chorus grants to me. I feel accepted and, in return, I hope to continue my efforts to support the constant quest to improve musicality, technique, tools and tricks to effect a constant learning environment. I believe the Masters' future is intact but not assured. Our members are open to leadership and challenge and, therefore, continuing improvement. However, while taking inspiration from our history, we must never take our legacy for granted."
When pressed about the future of the Barbershop Harmony Society, he is more concerned, and not shy: "I am troubled regarding the preservation of our genre of music. We are losing too many supporters of our musical art form. The reduction of membership and the loss of leadership create resistance for the Society in general. I am encouraged and supportive of the youth programs throughout the country. However, it will take huge efforts to assure the continuing health of the Society."
It is highly unlikely that Ken Potter would leave the Masters of Harmony or Los Angeles. When pushed about his continuity in this environment, he smiled and said, "Probably only a call from the Bay Area sensations Chanticleer, or if a great uncle dies and leaves me a single malt scotch distillery in Scotland, would I consider a move." So until one of those possibilities occurs, this author hopes that the treasure of Ken Potter stays just where he cached it.
Editor's note: Ken Potter describes his profession as a singer, keyboardist, choir director. He has been a member of the Masters of Harmony since 1991. He is an assistant director, assistant lead section leader, arranger-in-residence and has won five international chorus gold medals with the Masters. He gives credit for his "Big Face, Little Face" warm-up comments to former MOHer Bob McGee.
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