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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.

Busting Barbershop Myths

Kirsty Bui has more than a trained ear for the human voice. It’s her passion and her career.

She works at St Mary’s Hospital, one of London’s major trauma centres, as a Specialist Speech and Language Therapist. Part of her role includes helping people take care of their voice, make the most of it – and fix it when things go wrong.

She loves singing in choirs – and enjoys bringing her clinical skills and knowledge to her hobby.

Kirsty Bui

Kirsty’s also used to dealing with emergencies. So when the Knight’s annual Retreat programme fell apart, she stepped right in with a fascinating two-hour programme about the voice.

But it was her segment on ‘Busting Barbershop Myths’ that really caught the Knights’ attention.

She says: ‘I came up with an idea for a section based on some popular misinformation that I had heard from barbershop singers and other singing groups.

‘I wanted to make it fun – but I also wanted to help steer the Knights towards the best way of using and taking care of their voices’.

Here are just some of the barbershop myths Kirsty ‘busted’, in her own words:

Myth 1:  ’Barbershoppers only drink beer, they don’t need to drink water.’

‘Sadly, guys, you need to be aiming to drink two litres of water every day to keep your body properly hydrated. This will mean that your body can properly lubricate your vocal folds and keep them happy while you sing.

‘Caffeinated drinks and alcohol are both dehydrating as they are diuretics, and therefore should be taken in moderation and with regard to your water consumption.

‘Other drinks, such as fruit juices and flavoured waters, often have a high acidity content and can therefore cause problems with reflux. We all reflux, but with a high-intensity abdominal activity, such as singing, acidic food and drink will impact the delicate tissues of the throat. If possible stick to water.

Myth 2: ‘Barbershoppers need ‘special’ water to sing best (e.g. hot/cold)’

‘Water can be taken hot, cold, or at room temperature. The temperature of the water doesn’t impact on your vocal folds directly, as they don’t actually meet—if water were to meet your vocal folds you would likely cough (a lot). It’s the same feeling as when food goes down ‘the wrong way’, and that’s because it would be heading to the lungs.

‘Some people find that ice-cold water can cause spasms in the throat. If this happens to you then drink what feels most comfortable.

‘The only safe way for water to come into contact with your vocal folds is by steaming, and I highly recommended this. You could do this daily, on the odd occasion, or just before you perform. You don’t need anything special; the old fashioned bowl and tea towel works great. The best thing is that you can’t really over-do it—but five to ten minutes at a time is probably ideal.

‘Ever wondered why you sound better when singing in the shower? It’s not just the beautiful resonance of the bathroom tiles, but all that lovely steam – and probably a splash of naked inhibition.’

Myth 3’Barbershoppers need only worry about their voice on contest day.’

‘Sadly, not true. Good vocal care and vocal technique should be ingrained in your rehearsal routine so that they are intuitive. This allows you to really focus on other aspects of your performance—such as your performance!

‘There may be some additional aspects that you include just before you compete. What do you normally see A-level quartets doing before they perform? You will probably find them drinking plenty of water, getting an early night, and not talking or singing unnecessarily. I know it sounds boring, but once the performance is over they are probably the first in the bar celebrating with the knowledge that they gave it 110%.

‘Of course, one of the most important things to remember when you get off that stage, just like when you finish a rehearsal, is to ‘cool down’ your voice—it’s as important as warming up. (You never see athletes just sit down after they finish a race, they always cool down.) It allows you to re-set your voice back to its normal speaking level after performing some rather impressive vocal athletics. It doesn’t have to be complicated—it can be as simple as doing your warm up backwards.’

Myth 4: ‘Barbershoppers shouldn’t eat dairy before they sing.’ 

‘This is a theory that I have heard from singers for many years. The truth is that there is no concrete scientific evidence for this. For some people there appears to be a correlation between dairy products and mucus production—limited evidence suggests that this could be due to an unknown allergy to the casein protein in dairy and could be combatted by eating low fat dairy products instead.

‘The majority of people appear to eat dairy products without a problem. Therefore­, eat dairy products before you sing if you like them, but if you already know that you are lactose intolerant then steer clear!

‘It is much more important to give yourself a rest after eating before a performance or rehearsal due to symptoms of reflux. Try not to have a highly acidic, spicy, or heavy meal just before you sing, and try to eat more than two hours beforehand.’

Myth 5:  ‘Barbershoppers don’t use vibrato in their singing.’

‘Voiced sounds are produced from vibrations of the vocal folds, which create sound waves. Therefore we all have natural vibration when speaking or singing.

‘All singers produce a “vibrato” as notes are created from “rapid and slight” variations in pitch above and below the note you are aiming to sing. It is therefore not possible to sing without vibrato. Attempting to do so would be impossible and likely cause vocal strain from excess muscle tension.

‘Some people—such as opera singers—sing with a very “wide” vibrato; however this doesn’t work well for the barbershop style due to its negative impact on beautiful, ringing chords. A “wide” unintentional vibrato could be due to weak breath support or poor technique.

‘Singers should always sing with their own natural “free” voice following, of course, the direction of the chorus director. For example, singers often “warm” the ends of phrases with a slightly wider vibrato once they have locked into the final chord.

‘Enjoy singing, however you do it. It’s what we’re all here for!’

If you would like to hear the other myths Kirsty busted or want to know more about vocal health and technique, Kirsty and her husband Sean (Chorus Director of the Knights and Royal Harmonics) are both available for group coaching.

Contact: sean@seanbui.com

http://www.seanbui.com/

Tag Along Thursday – 15th March 2018

Warmer Knights Ahead

Snow and freezing storms last week forced us to postpone our open evening – Tagalong Thursday – till March 15.

But next time we’re making plans to ensure the weather doesn’t win.

Among those guests wanting to take a closer look at the Knights is – and we’re not making this up – a Mr Snow.

But worry not. We’re also expecting Mr Blow and – wait for it – Mr Brazier.

So if you want to warm the cockles of your heart by listening to some fine a cappella singing – and maybe even join us on the risers – make sure you come along to the White Hill Centre, Chesham, HP5 1AG on Thursday, March 15 at 7.45pm.

We already have our own Mr Spring – bass singer Tim Spring who will be on the risers as usual. Whatever the weather.

For more information, please contact:

Contact Chas on 07762 089818 / 01296 668985
email us at: Members@knightsofhaarmony.org.uk

 

Royals rescue Knights – how our retreat was almost beat

It’s one of the high points of our year. A weekend retreat where we do nothing but sing and learn how to be the best we can, from some of the finest coaches in the country.

That was the plan for our opening event of 2018. A comfortable hotel in the countryside with a full two-day programme – and an ample supply of fine ale. It wasn’t till we were unloading the risers that we heard the unhappy news: our guest coach had been forced to cancel due to a family emergency.

We were on our own – or so we thought.

Step forward our neighbours and friends, the Windsors.

No. Not the posh ones, but our music mates, the Royal Harmonics chorus of Windsor who – by pure chance – had booked their retreat for the same weekend, in the same hotel.

It’s also a happy coincidence that we recently appointed Sean Bui as our chorus director. Sean conducts several choirs – including the Royal Harmonics. https://royalharmonics.org.uk/ Within an hour, our chairman Al Lines, Sean, assistant directors and the Royal Harmonics had cobbled together an impressive programme of shared resources.

It began with Neil Horchover, RH bass and Performance Judge at the BABS annual convention, helping us to connect more effectively to the songs we sing.

Then a couple of sessions with the irrepressible Becki Hine, Director of Song of Atlanta chorus and acclaimed international coach. Director Becki’s other half is the renowned arranger-director-baritone Clay Hine who was leading the RH’s weekend coaching, and who also directed the end-of-weekend performances by both choruses.

Myths debunked

Day Two brought a really useful session with speech and language therapist Kirsty Bui about how to take better care of our voices, and debunking some favourite Barbershop myths. Good news: it’s OK to be a cheese-eating barbershopper unless you’re lactose intolerant. Bad news: water is better for you than beer.

For the remainder of our retreat we were treated to the talent and sharp wit of RH coach and 3-times BABS gold medallist Stuart Owen, whose dad Chas happens to sing bass with the Knights. That led to an interesting moment when Stuart had to tell his dad he wasn’t doing it quite right…

In between the training sessions, an evening’s entertainment of cabaret (starring our own Assistant Director Trevor Pearce) and a splendid afterglow with Knights and Windsors in close-enough harmony after a glass or two of beer.

We couldn’t have done it without them all. Thanks everyone.

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