Fun, Fellowship, and Song

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

our priorities.

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.

True confessions

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

the Society.


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