Masters of Harmony Update - Summer 2011

The Return to Kansas City

Ron Larson, Jul 29, 2011

In 1985, a small group of men decided they wanted a more satisfying barbershop experience. They formed the Masters of Harmony, a chorus “Dedicated to Musical Excellence.” In November 1987, barbershop icon Dr. Greg Lyne became their director. Twenty months of his leadership produced such remarkable improvement that chorus members believed they could become the first barbershop chorus to win gold on its first try. It was not to be as three talented and more experienced choruses finished ahead of them at the 1989 International Convention in Kansas City. In a remarkable display of introspective self-criticism, some chorus members met to analyze the contest results with a passion that matched what they had just taken to the contest stage. Out of these meetings came a steely determination to reach for the top in San Francisco in 1990. Lessons learned from 1989 helped produce four International Chorus Championships during the 1990s –– three led by Dr. Lyne and one by Jeff Oxley, and three more by the indomitable Mark Hale in the new millennium. Now, twenty-two years later, the 2011 International Convention offered the MOH family an opportunity to return to the city that had been so pivotal in that pursuit of “Musical Excellence.”

The escalating scores earned by recent chorus winners convinced Masters’ members they would have to go beyond anything they had ever done on the International stage if they were to repeat as chorus champions. Accordingly, meticulous plans for the 2011 contest were made many months ago. The result was a three-pronged plan, one full of both risks and opportunities.

Part one involved choosing a contest package that fit chorus strengths. Part two involved learning vocal techniques that helped choruses like The Westminster Chorus and The Northern Lights (Toronto) produce the clean, well-balanced sound of a gold-medalist quartet. Part three involved positioning the chorus in shotgun formation, something the Masters had done only briefly in 1999. Simultaneously developing world-class excellence in all three areas was a lot to ask and, in the early months of the plan, it produced noticeable frustration.

The Masters already had an excellent uptune in the rollicking “Alabama Jubilee,” a 1915 song composed by George Cobb with lyrics by Jack Yellen. Aaron Dale did a terrific job arranging the song with updated lyrics, and Erin Howden worked her usual choreographic magic to help produce a lively up-tempo song with stunning visual appeal. Then, choreography coach Justin Miller, who had worked so well to interpret and teach Erin’s choreography, accepted a job in Connecticut and some wondered how the chorus would react to the loss of Justin’s exceptional talent. Well, front row and baritone section leader Patrick Claypool stepped up to the plate and hit a home run. He proved to be adept at teaching Erin’s ideas and even “tweaked” them to make them a better fit. The music part of the plan really began to jell when MOH Director Mark Hale and bass Dr. Rob Campbell collaborated on the arrangement of “Stranger In Paradise,” a stunningly beautiful ballad from the 1953 musical Kismet. When the learning tracks were released to chorus members, it was “love at first sound!” Chorus members now knew they had a terrific performance package to present in Kansas City.

Mark called on Royce Ferguson, an MOH member, quartet champion tenor (Revival) and the director of Westminster’s first gold medal success, to work intensively with the chorus to produce a tighter, cleaner chorus sound – one with the pitch, balance and ring characteristics needed to perform at the highest possible level. His vocal exercises seemed strange at first and took time to master, but those standing in front of the chorus began to hear what individual members did not . . . noticeably improved sound.

To take full advantage of Royce’s tireless work to improve chorus sound, Masters’ men were placed in modified shotgun formation. No longer would each section stand as a group. To some on the risers, this was the most frustrating change of all. Many MOH veterans, who had faced audiences from one side of the chorus for many years, now had to reprogram their brains to perform choreography from the other side, do it in time for the annual spring shows, and then have it mastered for the International stage in Kansas City!

On May 21, the Masters staged their annual spring shows, this time at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, featuring The Westminster Chorus as guest performers. The show titled “The Dream is Carried On” reflected the close relationship between these two champion choruses.

On May 26, Dr. Lyne returned to Cal State Long Beach for a coaching session designed to help the MOH identify and correct problem areas in the performance package being honed for competition.

In early June, chorus members met at mile-high Idyllwild Pines Camp for a weekend retreat filled with rigorous rehearsals. Once again, Erin Howden was there to help polish the plan she had so skillfully crafted the year before and Patrick Claypool enhanced so effectively. Sometime on Saturday afternoon, any lingering uncertainty about MOH preparedness just seemed to vanish, and chorus confidence levels soared to levels that would be needed for the challenges awaiting at International.

As things turned out in Kansas City, the Masters of Harmony would need every bit of that lengthy preparation to win by 5 points (out of 3000) over Minnesota’s Great Northern Union. In its best International performance ever, GNU’s stellar contest package “brought the house down” and almost let them squeeze by. MOH outscored GNU in the Singing and Music categories, while GNU clearly won the Presentation slot. Adding to MOH’s reputation as producer of quartet excellence were Masterpiece, 3rd-place medalists, and The Crush, improving to a 13th-place finish.

On July 24, the Masters got their first opportunity to perform as the 2011 International Champion with a sold-out appearance at San Diego’s First United Methodist Church, a site last visited four years ago. A delightful surprise for both Masters’ members and the audience that filled Linder Hall to capacity was the presence of Ann Blyth, who starred in the 1955 film version of Kismet. The Masters were delighted to honor her distinguished 41-year career with an especially moving rendition of “Stranger In Paradise,” the song she helped popularize a half-century ago.

Sadly, along the road to Kansas City, the Masters lost two members who had contributed to the Masters’ success. Bruce Guthrie, who had joined the Barbershop Harmony Society in the mid-fifties, was a four-time gold medalist with the MOH. Haven Kolls, a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society for 47 years, earned seven gold medals with the Masters of Harmony.

Since the last report, the Masters have welcomed Cristian Carbajal, Richard Dawes, Ethan Pence, Antone Rodich and Ricky Uyehara into membership.

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