by Montana Jack Fitzpatrick
Occasionally, in every lifetime we see or hear something spectacular that so impresses us so deeply that we promise ourselves we will never forget it. Yet, time passes and we do forget. We forget all the specifics but mostly not the event itself. The address I have posted below was sent out to all of our members a mere two years ago. And we all vowed to remember it. I would bet that, most of those who read it, have forgotten that they even did so. The rest of us just forgot the specifics. Kirk’s message is packed full of remarkable insights. As a keynote address, it was supposed to be the precursor of those things that the board of directors would be addressing. It should have been the jumping off point for an earth shaking change in direction and purpose. Sadly, we now realize, that the board, like the rest of us, listened and moved onward—with the really important business. As a result, the number of active barbershop singers has been decimated. Thousands of singers have been lost since Kirk’s urgent plea to his fellow singers. Kirk’s suggestions for success represent our reasons for believing why this society was founded and exists. We need to continue to tell that to all of our members and those who are seeking what we have found or are well down the road toward discovering. - mjf
Keynote address, 2009 BHS Midwinter Convention
Delivered by Kirk Roose
Thank you for the chance to talk about our urgent situation. There is still time to reshape and
rebuild the chapters and the Society. It is time to examine some of the changes made by the
Society in the past few decades. I agree that big changes are needed, but in a different
direction. Toward chapters, simplicity, spontaneity, and fun.
In the exciting early days of our Society, chapters and Society leaders shaped the “product” to
welcome newcomers. It worked. But then a lot of well-meaning Barbershoppers, including me,
fundamentally changed that product. It doesn’t sell so well any more. We refined barbershop
instead of building it. Conventions, contests, and schools began to replace chapter meetings in
Three cheers for our chapters
So welcome back the era of the chapter! Hail the hundreds of back-slapping, chord ringing,
joke-telling, coffee-drinking, birthday-celebrating, tag-fixing, gang-singing, pitchpipe fumbling
chapters from sea to shining sea. When they are healthy, the Society is healthy. I don’t think our
Society can survive if most of the chapters die. I don’t think we can succeed as a holding
company for copyrights, schools, contests, and conventions. The Society started and flourished
as chapters, for a reason. Logic and history tell us that our Society should move its functions as
close to the chapter level as possible.
Fun bubbling up from average guys in average chapters
To go back to a chapter-centered Society, we need to define a different purpose, model, and
governance. We have tried working our expert agenda on average chapters, but it hasn’t
worked. Instead, we need to nurture the fun, energy, and creativity bubbling up from the
chapters. The era of pursuing “excellence” and “improvement” – it’s over. And not a moment too
soon. As noble as that agenda sounded, it has become counterproductive for average chapters
and average singers. More on that later. Back to the positive. To rebuild chapters, we have to
add many men, most of average talent and motivation. That’s how a large organization was
built, eclipsing the more selective, more regimented, and less fraternal forms of male singing.
Stands to reason. There are a lot more men with average talent than with superior. All bring
their gifts, however average or superior. The man who cannot pass some chapter’s audition
may be a great barbershopper, with leadership, creativity, or friendliness to spare. Fortunately,
barbershop can make an extraordinary sound from ordinary voices. Most chapters, in my
experience, sound nice on “My Wild Irish Rose” or “What a Wonderful World.” Not so nice on
what we try to sing today. I am not a KIBBER. Let me repeat that, I am not a
Keep-It-Barbershop guy. I am a KISSER. For the sake of our average and below-average
chapters and quartets, we should “Keep it Simple.” Whatever era the music, make sure it is
singable by most Barbershoppers.
Can we grow by criticizing other people’s singing (“improving” them)?
I joined to sing, not to improve. Most guys do. Even our competitive chapters are learning that
there are more “losers” than winners in the race to establish a pecking order in barbershop. Our
energy should be going outward to attract more members, but a huge amount of energy is still
going inward toward the culture of “achievement.” You know the drill: auditions, qualifications,
taping, more challenging music, learning CDs, homework, riser discipline, the two-song
syndrome. Some still hold it as an article of faith that in order to increase their membership,
chapters must work hard to improve their singing. Gentlemen, we have tried this for decades.
The harder we try, the worse it gets. In my experience, most chapter leaders who try to “raise
the bar” end up frustrated. Not all, but most. And I see alternatives. Many chapters quietly
succeed and grow by focusing on other goals. What could be wrong with striving for
improvement? Think about it. There is a hidden reminder within the “improvement” goal: “You
need to improve. You are not good enough.” This inescapable subtext undermines the fun of
barbershop, especially for less gifted, less intense, or less experienced members. “Failure”
becomes a possibility in their hobby.
I confess, I was part of the “improvement” push in the Society. Although I did not join to improve
my singing, I soon became part of the group of aspiring competitors, coaches, arrangers,
directors, and don’t forget the judges. We had our vocabulary: “rehearsal,” “art form” (I loved
that as an arranger), “artistry,” “excellence,” “commitment.” I truly came to believe that there was
a “correct way” to sing barbershop, that we were making progress toward it, and that the men
who could sing better should separate themselves into achievement-oriented choruses. I finally
had to change, because I saw the downside of the “achievement” philosophy in myself and in
When you talk about “fun singing” these days, you sometimes get negative reactions. Some
members who are heavily invested in the “improvement” viewpoint say that “fun” singing is just
bad singing, like the chapter that meets down the road from theirs. Others will say that they
enjoy standing on the risers for three hours polishing a phrase – so “fun” is different for each
member. How did fun get such a bad name, or get so hard to define?
Our 1938 start
Check out the letter of invitation to the first meeting at the Roof Garden of the Tulsa Club in
1938, signed by our founders Rupert Hall and O.C. Cash. Note the simplicity and attractiveness
of its concept. It was a “songfest,” not a rehearsal, and the attendees sang down the list of
songs from top to bottom letting the chips fall where they may. It started at 6:30 p.m. and a
“Dutch lunch” was served. The letter spoke of the freedom of singing, the romance of a summer
infatuation. It sounded like fun. Where did these ideas come from?
Spaeth’s idea of fun–the original recipe
Then I discovered that the book has already been written on fun singing and its relationship to
barbershop harmony. “Music for Fun,” by Sigmund Spaeth, copyright 1939 and 1942. Spaeth,
who was prominent in the formation and growth of the Society, was a broad gauge and talented
musician, a Ph.D. in musicology, with a national weekly radio program about music and several
popular books to his credit. Spaeth laid out a concept of music for the masses, not just the
talented, the experts, or the professionals. Music for everyone. Spaeth celebrated the fun of
amateur music, as contrasted with the drudgery he said was experienced by professional
musicians and their wannabes. Spaeth related close harmonizing to spontaneity and to
freedom, as O.C. Cash and Rupert Hall had in their invitation letter to the first meeting in Tulsa.
“Before [a spontaneous close harmony session] ends, the ‘quartet’ may have a dozen or more
members, of whom only one or two are willing to stick to the melody while the rest disagree
violently as to the proper harmonies.” (Music for Fun, page 101.) Spaeth had a particular
fondness for barbershop singing. He had written another important book in 1925, thirteen years
before the Society started in 1938, and then he re-issued it in 1940. It was called “Barber Shop
Ballads And How To Sing Them.” This book laid out a concept of barbershop singing for
recreation. He identified the aspects of barbershop singing that would make it an attractive
hobby for many men. Let me quote directly from page two of the 1940 edition of Spaeth’s
“Barber Shop Ballads,” as this woke me up about how far we have changed the original,
successful idea: “Barber shop harmony contains the elements of folk music, particularly in its
improvisational character. Its technique is of the naive and spontaneous type.” Wow. Roots
The hams that cannot be cured
Spaeth in 1940 also clearly identified the light-hearted nature of the barbershop society that he
had helped invent: “The humorous angle is still present, and, it is hoped, will never be
eliminated. Barber shop harmonizers know they are being funny, but they keep as straight a
face over their hobby as the most ardent stamp collector.” (Barber Shop Ballads page vii.) Note
that the new Society, with its funny name and tongue-in-cheek writing and publicity, followed
Spaeth’s advice. Meredith Willson sensed this later when he wrote the barbershop quartet into
“Music Man” as lovable shtick. The school board sings “ice cream.” The parts gyrate. A good
time is had by all.
The thinking behind the Society
I had always wondered how a tax lawyer and an investment banker were so lucky as to make
so many good decisions in starting the Society. It turns out, I believe, that the intellectual work
had been done by Spaeth and others as they spent more than ten years trying to see how the
fun of barbershop harmony could be preserved and encouraged for average singers. Not all of
the early decisions were good ones. The Society was whites-only. The Society chose to follow
the Oklahoma/Midwest path rather than the New York City racially-integrated path. For more on
this and a brilliant scholarly analysis of the origins of barbershop harmony and the Society, see
“Four Parts, No Waiting” by Professor Gage Averill, Oxford University Press US.
Founders consciously chose against “serious” barbershop
Another mistake of mine was thinking that the early Society leaders just didn’t know any better -- that they were beginners. But there was already a strong tradition of professional quartets,
college glee clubs and quartets, and men’s choruses. The Peerless Quartet, popular superstars
of their day, sang until 1928 and their records were of course widely available ten years later.
Spaeth himself was steeped in the college glee club and men’s chorus tradition. Other early
members of the Society included Geoffrey O’Hara, a professional singer, composer, and
songwriter (“K-K-K-Katy,” “The Old Songs”). In Tulsa, where the first meeting was held in 1938,
there was already a rich community tradition of men’s glee clubs and choruses. Good examples
of professional and semi-professional “serious” male singing were available to our founders. But
with the advice of recognized musicians like Sigmund Spaeth, they rejected the professional,
academic, serious in favor of a joyous amateurism. Barbershop as a recreation quickly reached
thousands of men.
Explosive success of the original product
In its first twelve years, the Society grew from 0 to 27,000 members, presumably mostly of
rather average talent. 1938 to 1950 was our golden period of growth. Does the 1950
membership number of 27,000 sound familiar? That is a little bigger than our membership
Membership loss and our changes
After the explosive growth years, there was slow growth of another 11,000 members during the
next 33 years until our peak membership of about 38,000 in the year 1983. Then a slow decline
in the past few years. Note that the population has more than doubled since 1950, so that our
membership as a percentage of population has dropped sharply. We’ve lost about one-third of
our membership, but about two-thirds of our market per capita. Note also that in the 33 years
from 1950 until 1983, the period of slow growth, the population grew faster than the Society, so
we were actually losing ground. The stark truth: the only period of “real” growth was the first
twelve years, from 1938 until 1950. We are clearly in a serious membership decline, despite the
seeming paradox that our top performers are more expert than ever. How do you explain this
paradox? The Society has changed since those heady years of rapid membership growth. Let’s
list some of the things that changed as we moved away from improvisational, spontaneous,
The music we try is harder. The songs and arrangements we publish now are quite a bit harder
than those published when I joined the Society in the 1960’s, and much harder than what was
sung in the growth period of 1938-50. The quartets in the early years apparently sang the songs
in lower keys such as G or Ab, allowing more men to sing tenor comfortably. There seem to
have been no “rules” against doubling the root in a barbershop seventh chord, or in a quick
diminished seventh chord, so that parts were easier to hear and sing. More simple
call-and-response songs like “Sweet Adeline” were sung.
More dedication required
The hobby is now more time-consuming. Choruses rehearse every week. There is an
expectation in achievement-oriented chapters that members will spend time between meetings
doing homework, learning their music and “vocalizing.” This increase in time demand seems to
be counterproductive. Americans have less leisure time today. The Society commissioned a
marketing study about six years ago, by Harris Interactive. Although I believe the study was
flawed in some respects, some truths stood out. The primary reason prospects gave for not
joining the Society was: “not enough time.” So why have we not experimented with less
time-consuming models of the hobby? Two other related ideas took hold after the days of the
barbershop boom. First there was the work ethic, also known as riser discipline or no pain no
gain. Second, the attitude that there is a right way to sing barbershop and our leadership will
teach it through rehearsals, schools, coaching sessions, and contests. Let’s zoom in on that
The “right way”
If there is one change in my thinking that I pinpoint as fundamental, it is this one: I no longer
believe that there is a “right way” to sing barbershop. In the words of Sigmund Spaeth, “most
quartet music can be sung in half a dozen ways without breaking any laws or violating tradition.
Such improvised harmony should not be bound by rules in any case. If the quartet itself is
satisfied, that is the main point. Let the listener take it or leave it.”
Professionalism has increased in the Society. Professional musicians are relied upon. Some
members have become professional Barbershoppers. The longstanding ethical prohibition on
using one’s membership in the Society for financial gain seems quaint.
Hand-picked choruses and the rise of elite chapters
Hand-picking means excluding singers. Not even lip service is now given to the longstanding
Society policies against hand-picked choruses, raiding of members, and forming new chapters
that might harm existing chapters. Most of our members will be surprised to learn that these
policies ever existed. Actually, the policy against hand-picked choruses disappeared from the
Society’s written policies recently, without fanfare or public discussion.
How present policies would have affected the early Society
Let’s look again at the very first 1938 meeting in Tulsa. What would have happened if that first
invitation had promised auditions, voice lessons, a music teacher, the goal of being as good as
glee clubs, if professional quartets and their arrangements had been held up as models, or if the
better singers had decided to meet separately? I doubt that the Society would have gotten off
the ground. The early product certainly seems to have been tailored for growth. No rejection of
members, no frustratingly hard music, no homework, no “correct way,” no inferiority complex
about professional quartets and singers, no every-week grind, no “riser discipline,” no “do it my
way,” no proliferation of committees and chieftains.
Spontaneity and fun as official Society suggestions
Three years after our founding, at the 1941 Midwinter convention, the Society Board published a
packet with recommendations for chapter meetings (this is from Val Hicks, ed., “Heritage of
Harmony,” 1988, S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. Inc., p. 26). There was still a remarkable similarity to the first
meeting in 1938. The Society recommended that chapters meet about twice per month! There
was still at least a half hour of gang-singing by ear, then quartet singing, joke telling and
“tail-twisting,” whatever that was! There was a big emphasis on bringing guests and local
“musical celebrities.” There were no chorus directors, and there was still no hint that
improvement was the goal.
Enduring lessons from history–fun, fellowship, and creativity
For renewal, I suggest that chapters focus on three elements: fun singing, social bonding, and
creativity. I believe that even the most competitive chapters should provide a full measure of
these lifeblood elements. From time to time the Harmonizer publishes articles about making
singing more fun at chapter meetings (use a stopwatch to measure singing time, use music that
is easily sung by the men, re-establish the function of chapter Program Vice President). Social
bonding should be given thought and attention as well (increase laughter, hold chapter visits,
build in teamwork opportunities). Of the three, creativity has been analyzed the least.
Hamming it up: the creativity list
Let’s consider creativity. AKA spontaneity or hamming it up. In my experience, creativity is the
key to improving our meetings and appealing to today’s prospects. Not just the creativity of the
director, coach, or arranger, but the creativity of each member at every meeting. Every aspect of
the meeting. Exercising our spontaneous creativity, at whatever level we are able, is very
engaging and fun for most of us. A big side benefit is that practicing our improvisation makes us
I made a list:
● Singing is more creative than listening.
● Singing in a quartet or a solo is more creative than singing in a chorus.
● Directing is more creative than being directed.
● Arranging is more creative than following an arrangement.
● Ear-singing is more creative than a known arrangement.
● Coaching is more creative than being coached.
● Inventing spoken introductions to songs is more creative than reading somebody else’s.
● Problem-solving in a small group is more creative than being taught.
Joe Barbershopper used to get more creative minutes
Using the creativity list, it looks like the early chapter meetings allowed the members many more minutes of creative/spontaneous time than our meetings today do. Thus the appeal to freedom in Spaeth and the 1938 invitation. Too many of our meetings say “do as we tell you.”
Chapter meetings should provide healthy doses of fun singing, social bonding, and creativity for each member and visitor. Chorus rehearsals do not usually allow many creative minutes for the guys. The chorus director is a key to this transformation. The director’s new job is helping the singers have fun and be creative, not to teach or correct them. The director should have the skills and attitudes of a social director on a ship, a recreation director, and a music therapist!
What do our prospects want?
Some say that social trends have left us high and dry. I don’t think so. Let’s look again at the
recent Harris Interactive study that I mentioned in connection with time demands. Why not try
some of the other ideas suggested in that study? The study suggests that older men are much
more likely to want to join. This key finding should not scare us. I would love to see thousands of
men age 55-65 join every year. With today’s health advances, such new members have at least
10-15 good vigorous singing years left, which is longer than the average member stays. Why
are we turning our backs on the baby boom as it reaches retirement age? What a great
retirement hobby. Research is showing that singing together is a healthy activity for older
people. Why not have doctors prescribe a recreational chapter? Shouldn’t we have
gerontologists and geriatric recreation specialists advising us? The study suggests that more
prospects think they would enjoy solo singing than singing harmony. Why not add another point
of fun to our meetings, allowing men to take turns singing the melody while the group hums as a
background? Why not add instruments to some activities, if members play them? The study
suggests that “all ages” is a feature of barbershop singing that our prospects like. Why not
market an inter-generational experience, instead of spending so much money, time, and energy
teaching youth to sing barbershop outside the chapter structure? The study suggests that
self-improvement and competition are not strong motivators for most of our prospects. All the
more reason to reorient away from these goals. The study suggests that our prospects are
satisfied with the traditional variety of barbershop music. It is our existing members who ask for
more recent music. The study suggests that two specific groups, bowlers and
African-Americans, are more likely to join. Have we tried marketing to African-American
bowlers? Better yet, older ones? Is there an older African-American bowling league in your city?
Don’t split the Society more
The prevailing wisdom seems to be that we can help average chapters without changing the
environment for achievement chapters. Many are saying “let each chapter define its own fun.”
From my experience on both sides, I am afraid that these are code words for “preserve the
preferences we give to the few achievement-oriented chapters and to the top competitors.”
There are at least three reasons why we cannot have two Societies. First, historically our
founders created one Society; the better singers did not go to a different hotel. Second, the
lion’s share of Society resources and prestige go for the improvement/achievement chapters
and quartets even though probably 80% of our chapters and quartets are not in this category.
Third, the tastes, doctrines, institutions, and procedures that have been designed to motivate
the achievement groups actually undermine the others. Remember the subtext, “you don’t sing
well enough.” Remember chapters eating other chapters.
So I say, hello, average chapters. Beginners and recreational singers, we love you. We cannot
afford to operate on principles that put down most of our members. We need to reclaim our
heritage of informal, fun-loving, spontaneous harmonizing. Heeding the lessons of our past, we
can grow our hobby past 50,000 men, most with only ordinary levels of available time, talent,
and dedication. What would happen if all chapters tried a two-year vacation from working to
refine barbershop, and turned back toward fun and growth? I know we could do it.