The 00’s—A Decade of Change, Challenge and Celebration!

Mark Hale, Director, Jan 6, 2010

Ten years ago next week I flew into Southern California on a Wednesday evening for the daunting opportunity of auditioning for the directorship of the Masters of Harmony chorus, current international champions and certainly already one of the best that had ever been. I had no way of knowing how important and life changing this moment would be.

Many of you were there that night. I introduced a piece of music and proceeded to go about teaching it to the chorus, and I admit that I was very nervous. I took the opportunity to introduce myself to everyone and let them know of some of my accomplishments since I was surely an unknown to many in the chorus.

Looking back, the one thing that stays with me from that night is how extremely welcoming and cordial the men on the risers were. While I’m sure they were threatened to be on their best behavior, there was something distinctive about the positive energy and excitement I felt from them that enticed me to want to uproot myself and move across the country, and not just in search of some California Gold. There was something in the air and I wanted to be a part of it.

I took the reigns in April 2000 and found a chorus that was very different from the one I had been directing. We all had to adapt and FAST. I got to work figuring out what direction to take the chorus in and everyone else had to figure out what I was trying to get them to do with my un-Lyne-like hands. There was a lot of uncertainty. Some people may have suspected that the chorus was heading for a fall but one thing you never want to do is count the MOH out. We made it through the swan song year and started defining who our cast of characters was going to be. I learned a lot about how the Masters do business, how they expect excellence in everything and settle for nothing less. There were some good times, some mistakes and even a few disasters (a certain midwinter performance comes to mind).

Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned early on about not just the Masters of Harmony but also Southern California barbershop in general is that the talent is abundant and everyone is eager to share it with others. I was amazed at how the rivalries within the district were almost non-existent, replaced instead with camaraderie and encouragement. The Masters exemplified this and I discovered why loyalty to this organization runs deep.

When challenged to summarize the past decade, I find I can’t do it without focusing attention on the people—those who continually gave their time and talents to make each week something to remember. When I consider our achievements, I find myself thinking not about the contest wins and shows we sang but instead about the people whose contributions helped to make them great—a list that starts and ends with each singer who shows up ready to perform regardless of the circumstance.

It’s amazing to consider how small events have had such an important impact on our history. Sure, we’ve made some mistakes along the way but there were some things that we did that were very right too. For instance,

  • The best decision I ever made was the first one—to make the Masters of Harmony the best Masters of Harmony they could be and not try to change them into something else. Through the counsel of chorus stalwarts Rob Menaker, Doug Maddox, Brett Littlefield, Marlin Fors and others I learned what made the chorus what it was and I decided to allow identity and musical changes to happen organically.
  • In 2001 we kicked off a relationship with a Canadian choreographer named Erin Howden who would come to define our new visual approach, and eventually, in many ways, that of the entire Barbershop Harmony Society.
  • Also in 2001, I happened to run into a certain family named Miller at a Pioneers event and we ended up singing tags till they shut the place down. Just a chance meeting but the series of events since helped shape our entire decade.
  • A young fellow with a big smile named Sean Devine showed up in January of 2001 with big dreams and a lot of determination. Later that year a quartet was formed that has affected us each week since, not only with their talent but with the confidence and character that we could be proud of. Sure, they were the face of a new generation but they still exuded class of the Masters of Harmony to the core. Westminster Chorus has gone on to affect the Society in ways we will only discover as we look back decades from now. Their excellence was never a surprise, but the thing that has always impressed me is their maturity and desire to “do what is right” over their personal egos. They are our brothers and they honor us with each achievement.
Ours is a chorus of big talents and big personalities! One of the things we have done the most right is providing opportunities for our individual stars to shine, thus bringing an even brighter luster to our entire organization. Where would we be without the incredible contributions of Les Weiser (and his band), Ken Potter in all of his roles, the various speakers and soloists who perform with continued excellence, our front row (the best in the Society!) and, of course, the long history of successful quartets that parade in front of us each week? [We allow others to “perform” in different ways, from training (Mark Matonic, Doug Price, Mark Feiner, Mark Freedkin, etc.) to creating printed materials (Tim Truesdell, Frank Ortega, Taylor Anderson) to preparing our costumes (Jackie Palmquist and the wonderful Harmony Sweethearts) to running our shows (Doug Maddox, Sharon Ernsberger, Marlys Sams, Jim & Pat Sickles) to managing the business (Bernard Priceman, Ken Custer, Kirt Thiesmeyer, Marlin Fors, Bill Rosica, Bruce Oldham); the list goes on…

Certainly it is the consistency and optimism of each person in the Masters of Harmony that has led us to this important juncture. I say juncture because we are at a critical place in our history. If we get complacent or look upon things as business as usual, we run the risk of getting stale and out of touch. When thinking about this article and reliving the past 10 years, I was struck by how many things have changed, often for the better and sometimes not. It’s how we have accommodated and adapted to those changes that have defined the last decade, just as it will do in the next. I expect I will look back in 2020 and find that just as many changes have occurred, with lots of new stars in our midst and even some new quartet champs. What will NOT change will be the dedication of each member to the Masters of Harmony, to use his talents unselfishly for the betterment of the organization, and to embrace what is new while clinging to those things that make us who we are. We are not just a chorus. We are your brothers, your fathers, your family. It is our legacy.


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