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John Wiggins was 40 years old back in 1975. He was busy working as an Executive Engineer for British Telecom. That was the year the UK voted to remain in the European Union, annual inflation reached 25% and Mrs Beckham gave birth to a son she named David. It was also the year that John came up with the idea of founding a chorus of his very own: the Knights of Harmony. John, now 83 and retired from BT, lives with wife Gina in Cheddington, Beds. He remains one of the Knights’ most active members.   As well as having a fine tenor voice, John is a talented arranger of barbershop music. In this interview he tells how his passion for singing began as a child – and how it continues through the Knights today.

Singing By Ear

I’ve been attracted to harmony groups since the age of 5, started singing in the church choir at the age of 8 and, through the years, several choirs of mixed abilities. I formed a quartet at school in Oxfordshire and we sang songs in which we made up the musical parts, relying entirely on our ears for harmony. We didn’t realise it at the time, but we were – in effect – singing barbershop. ‘Woodshedding’ as it’s called in our community. We enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the school music teacher wasn’t impressed. I was a chorister for most of my early years but it was cut short when my country called me into the RAF for 3 years (2 years National Service plus one). I served from 1952 to 1955 working on a prototype new early warning radar system.

Founding The Knights

In 1973 my life changed when I attended a concert in Reading featuring a visiting American barbershop chorus and three quartets. I was blown away by the beauty of the sound and promised myself, right there and then, to get involved. I got invited to sing with a group of singers based in Tilehurst who were starting a new barbershop club. Travelling back and forth I clocked up several hundred miles per week. After a while this began to wear me down and I decided that I would have to form a club closer to home – in Chesham (Bucks) where I then lived. The Chesham Barbershop Harmony Club was the result. At the start the chorus was called the ‘Buckaneers’ (sic). Between 1975 and today we spent nine years based in Hemel Hempstead – where the chorus went under the name of the Highwaymen – and in 1998 we rebased to Chesham. Our club’s official name became the Chess Valley Barbershop Singers and its chorus the Knights of Harmony. I learned to read music through school and singing in choirs. However, my in-depth knowledge of barbershop music comes from my studies in America under some of the best arrangers in the world. This led me to teaching the subject at the British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) Harmony College. Over the years I have served several roles in the BABS organisation including Chairman of the Association 1987-88 and, during that period, appeared on TV as a judge in the Sainsbury Choir of the Year contest.

The Tingle Factor

Barbershop is such exciting harmony. Effectively we ‘sing between the cracks’ – that is, the notes unobtainable on a piano. The first time you’re told that, you probably think your leg is being pulled because a piano makes a perfectly good in-tune sound. Well, if we sang songs using piano tuning we would sound pretty good – as good as any piano. But we can sound better than a piano if we do it right, because a correctly-tuned piano is itself slightly out of tune. No, I’m not off my head. It’s because we sing a cappella with what’s called ‘Just Intonation’. Pianos are tuned to an ‘Equal Tempered’ scale as are most fixed-tuned instruments. All the semitones are exactly the same. ‘Just’ tuning enables singers to sing precisely locked chords – effectively the notes between the cracks of the piano keyboard – producing a lovely ringing quality and expanded sound that give you goose-bumps. I still enjoy the experience of what we call the ‘tingle factor’ – and I get my weekly fix at rehearsal. I love singing with the Knights just as much as I ever did, more than forty years on. I love making this wonderful sound with a like-minded team of people from all walks of life – friends through harmony.


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