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Ancestral Knights – how singing mends the gap

How does a young man of 18 talk to his grandad who’s fast approaching 80? How does a dad connect with his kids? How do you bring families together? The answer, it seems: singing. In this occasional series we’ll talk to three Knights whose families have found a way to bridge the age gap. Harmony really does begin with music. In Part One, meet Chas, Stuart and Chris Owen. Grandfather, father, son. An age gap spreading more than 60 years. They share a past. But they also share a passion: Barbershop. If it were football they loved (and Stuart does), then it’s likely that age would mean only one of them would still be playing. Not so with singing. All three are keen and active barbershoppers. Chas sings Bass with the Knights. He was a late starter – 47 when he switched from singing amateur opera after 10 years of listening to wife Lynne rehearse at home with her award-winning barbershop quartet Tapestry. Stuart, who’s 44, was raised in a household where – from the age of three – gold-medal singers regularly stayed and sang some of the best barbershop in the country. He’s now a leading barbershop coach, and wife Helen sings in the UK’s most successful quartet ever (Finesse), having reached the dizzying heights of 3rd in the world. So was it inevitable that 18-year-old Chris would follow in the family footsteps two years ago? He admits it was ‘a factor’. But, more importantly he says: “I like it”.

Cool and special

Did it involve any bribery or arm-twisting?  “A bit of both really.” he admits cheerfully.  “I decided to give it a go after years of being asked by my dad if I thought I’d sing in a chorus one day. Plus I eventually ran out of excuses not to!” Has singing with his grandad and dad made a difference? “I guess… it’s a cool thing to do together.  It’s given us something special’ Chas, who retired as a manager from the electricity board 22 years ago, agrees: “It’s normally hard for a grandfather to relate to a teenage grandson’s thinking,” he says. “But having a common hobby makes conversations that much easier”. Stuart says he was, in fact, ’gobsmacked’ when Chris told him and his mum he fancied singing in a chorus. “I think with so much barbershop going on in our lives we always felt it was likely to happen,” he says, “But it’s fabulous to have the memories”. The memories he refers to are special indeed. Last year the three generations of Owens picked up Silver Medals at the BABS Convention when they sang together, through Project Horizon, with Sheffield’s Hallmark of Harmony. Stuart is already a multi gold-winning medallist in both quartet and chorus.  But for novice Chris – and 33-year veteran Chas – is was a first. “It was really special,” Chas says. “The silver medal last year was my one and only award”. Newbie Chris agrees: “I won a silver medal in my first ever contest – which I like reminding dad about now and again.  Hopefully there’ll be more medals to come”.

Best Year Ever

For Stuart, it was one of his finest days.  “To say I was proud beyond measure is an understatement.  Seeing my son on the front row ‘doing the moves’ was so special I could hardly sing through emotion.“I’ve sung with Dad in chorus for many years – including the Knights – but last year I finally ‘got’ what it meant to be Dad for all those years.“To come away with a silver medal and see Dad’s face looking as pleased as punch to – finally – have a chorus medal after so many years of singing was the icing on the cake.” But Chris wasn’t going to let his dad wallow in glory for too long.  “I was very quickly brought back to earth by my son.” Stuart says “He came up to me after the results and said, and I quote: ‘So dad, where did you come in your first chorus competition’. Grrrr!” Nonetheless, Stuart sums up the achievement simply as ‘one of the most special – if not the Most Special – year I’ve ever had in Barbershop’. The Owen family live in Cheddington, close to Aylesbury, where Chris is studying for his A-Levels. He loves playing guitar and bass guitar in a band with his schoolmates.  He’s a big Marvel film fan. Do friends and family take the mickey out of him because of his Barbershopping?  “They all think it’s cool and are very supportive,” he says. For Chas, singing has always been part of his life.  “I was brought up in South Wales where everybody sings.  I had three sisters and they all sang, mainly as soloists.” As a teenager it was basketball not Barbershop he loved. He was selected for Wales for four years, including Olympic trials for the 1964 Tokyo Games. He ‘retired’ from playing when he got engaged to Lynne and ‘had to start saving’.In those days the only thing you got was the honour.  All other things such as track-suits, boots and travel came out of your own pocket”. Lynne is an accomplished singer in her own right – a LABBS quartet gold medal winner and an assistant director in the UK’s top women’s barbershop chorus, Amersham A Capella, which she joined the year it started – as Chiltern Harmony – in 1982. If Chris needed inspiration from his family, he clearly has it in bucketloads.  As well as his mum and dad, grandma and grandad being singers, so are his other grandparents.  And his 15-year-old sister Katie too. For dad Stuart its a ‘hobby’ that takes up almost all of his spare time. He sings at least twice a week in Quartet, Mixed Quartet and Church choir.  He rehearses ‘at least’ one weekend a month, coaches quartets and his colleagues in the Royal Harmonics’ chorus, and travels upwards of 7000 miles a year in pursuit of ringing chords – not including flights to the USA. His best-ever job: a year as a professional Barbershopper at EuroDisney.

Harmony and hackles

Even with so many years experience of singing by so many family members, it can’t always be sweet harmony in the Owen households, right? What if one of them feels the need to comment on another’s singing? Chris says: “I accept it because they tend to know what they are talking about…although sometimes I will correct dad on his words”. Chas takes a similar line: “I think they all sing better than me so I don’t comment.  I don’t complain as they are mainly trying to help. “However, I let them know if they overstep the mark.” Stuart admits it can cause occasional awkward moments: “Hmm… this is tricky.  Over the years Helen and I have learnt that we simply can’t coach each other, as the moment one of us suggests that the other isn’t doing something quite right the hackles are up and things instantly become frosty!” “For our children this has been quite difficult as they have always felt pressure to live up to our standard.  But they needn’t worry.  They are both better singers than us.” And how does he feel to be on the receiving end? “I’m not sure I can really repeat what I say if I get ‘comments’ from a relative,” he laughs. “Unless, of course, it’s a positive comment.  Then I like them!” This year Chris has decided to carry on singing with Hallmark of Harmony.  The barbershop legacy continues.