Harmony College

Barbershop singing group in blue-and-white striped shirts and  boaters
Barbershop singers in front of the original Leigh on-Sea station; image by Marathon under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence

What is a Harmony College?

Barbershop singing a cappella style is governed by the World Harmony Council, comprising 14 separate barbershop organisations around the globe with more than 57,000 male and female singers. In conjunction with the Barbershop Harmony Society, founded in America in 1938, it encourages the growth of close harmony singing unaccompanied by instruments. It is characterised by four-part chords for every melody sung by a single or group of lead, tenor, bass and baritone voices.

Four ladies singing in harmony
A capella group “Déjà Vu” from Ireland; image by Mike Phillips

A Harmony College is the premier education event of each organisation to train singers and musical directors in this art form. It brings groups together to learn new songs arranged in a cappella style and new ‘tags’ and ‘polecats’. A tag is a short melody with sheet music and teaches tracks for each of the four voices and all parts mixed. For example, What’ll I do? A polecat is similar but has one part missing so you can learn to sing your part along with the recording of the other three.

Barbershop Singing in Britain and Kent

There are two barbershop organisations in Britain – the British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) and the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers (LABBS). All organisations hold an annual convention with national and international competitions for choruses and quartets. Each group competing is judged on the quality of their singing, interpretation of the music and their performance, including choreography. Highest scoring groups in a national competition qualifies them to participate in the European convention (this year held in Sweden in May). Further success at this stage allows them to enter the World Competition in America.

In Kent, we have three notable choruses

  1. The Kentones (Bromley Barbershop Harmony Mens Club) with 50 members who also perform as a smaller group ‘Acafellas’ with 25 members. 
  2. Ashford Barbershop Harmony Club who use the sing-out name East Kent Chorus 
  3. Green Street Blues, a ladies group of 30 members from Sevenoaks who are members of LABBS. 

Our Harmony College in Spain

The college was held at the AR Diamante Beach & Spa Hotel in Calpe from 31 March to 3 April. We hired three top-class trainers from Britain led by Simon who is an arranger and composer and musical director of ‘The Collective’ virtual chorus. The barbershop family was unable to sing live together during the pandemic and adapted to sing with others around the world in a virtual environment. Rhiannon, with 47 years’ experience of barbershop singing, has coached groups from Britain, Ireland, Germany and Holland. Sarah won a Harmony 500 award as a musical director. All three are qualified judges. 

Barbershop <em>a cappella</em> group singing
SABS Harmony College in Calpe, Alicante, 2022; image by Mike Phillips

The weekend offered six sessions in different rooms that groups could choose, appropriate to their needs for education, coaching of groups and musical directors and judging with real scores. There was also a welcome showcase on the first evening and a SABS Harmony College Show with all attendees performing a new arrangement of Sweet Caroline they learned during the weekend plus Scratch Quartets. An opportunity to learn and perform with three other singers from different choruses. A fun weekend for all.