B l u e g r a s s S t u d e n t U n i o n
International Quartet Champions
of the Barbershop Harmony Society
|last update: Feb 2003|
How can we sum up the career of the Bluegrass Student Union? Every person on earth has a “legacy;” a list of qualities which can inspire and teach others. A barbershop quartet is a team autonomous, with a separate life and legacy of its own, albeit intertwined with the lives of its four members.
The question most often asked of us by quartet fans is "What are your secrets?" Perhaps our answers might be fun to read.
Near the beginning of our career, we asked the same question of our favorite quartet, the “Suntones.” They explained they had been inspired by the legendary “Buffalo Bills,” and that there was no simple road map. The "Suntones" shared some elements of their success, but advised us that each quartet must make its own path.
During our first rehearsal, we heard
the overtones, and interpreted them as some kind of “magic.” First,
all we could do was laugh, but before the evening was over, we swore to
each other that we would win the International Quartet Contest, and would
"become another “Suntones’;”" bold words, since on that night, our
average age was eighteen very short years. They were not half so
short as the twenty-five years which followed. These are our “secrets.”
We could not have helped but notice the music which our parents and siblings enjoyed. Dwight and Mary Jo Hatton, Jim and Paula Burgess, and E.J. Staab introduced us to barbershop harmony, through their participation in the Louisville area SPEBSQSA, INC. and Sweet Adeline chapters. It was natural for us to have followed in their footsteps.
As members of the International Champion “Thoroughbred Chorus,” the BSU received instruction from true experts in the field, as part of our introduction to quartet singing. Our legendary chorus director, Jim Miller, along with his quartet, the International Finalist "Citations" and our long-time chorus coach, Ed Gentry had a keen understanding of balance, vowel matching and synchronization of consonants, which gave us a great head start. We also picked up a confident performing attitude from their example.
Allen's and Ken's mother, Mary Jo, was director of the “Falls Of The Ohio Chapter” of “Sweet Adelines, International,” and agreed to serve as the quartet's first coach. She focused her efforts on vocal production and rhythm, in order to give us tender young singers a solid understanding of how to keep a beat and produce tones properly by using the right muscles. We sang many hours of unison to create as solid a unit sound as possible. Even though this difficult work did not score “quick” points in competition, it was her contention that to ignore this element of good singing would limit the quartet's impact down the road. In retrospect, we sure are glad “Mom” convinced us to do that difficult work.
Nevertheless, in the fall of 1974, we became Cardinal District Quartet Champions in our first attempt. Six months later, we met Don Clause, who had already coached several International Champion Quartets, including the “Dealer's Choice.” The “DC” had revolutionized quartet craft, achieving an unprecedented mastery of vowel matching and synchronization. Under Don's guidance, they had proven it was possible to “ring” every single chord. Her task completed, Mary Jo handed her “kids,” the “Bluegrass Student Union,” over to Don for the next phase of our development.
Coach Don’s impact on the group was phenomenal. His understanding of form was specific to quartetting, while our “Thoroughbred” fundamentals had been designed for chorus singers. Also, Don had great knowledge of the use of interpretive tools like rhythm, tempo, dynamics, etc.. Still, the greatest contribution Don made to the BSU was motivational. His charisma and motivational skills served to solidify our work ethic and discipline. The result was an accelerated learning process. Don introduced us to arranger Ed Waesche, who gave us our first "original" arrangements. Ed's intellect and creativity helped motivate us to work even harder on our craft, because his wonderful arrangements deserved nothing less.
Thirty months after our first rehearsal, we were told we had virtually mastered the science of barbershop quartet singing.
Perhaps, as youngsters, we were sensitive to the fact that we might have a boyish sound. Still, Rick had an unnaturally solid bass range, with a wide, full timbre, creating overtones all by himself. Dan, Our baritone was a natural bass, as well, so his quality complemented Rick's nicely. Dan's high register was thinner; a better match for Ken's lead sound, which was measurably brighter than the others, serving to make Ken's voice predominant. Allen's tenor quality was comparatively dark, resulting in a unique aural “tension” between the two brothers (Ken and Allen).
These were not elements over which
we had total control, but simply the gifts God gave us. Through
experimentation, and with our coaches' guidance, we learned to exploit
and discipline their use, so as to create the most exciting sound possible.
We were pleased that the resulting unit sound was more manly than boyish,
and that it became more virile as we matured physically.
After the glow of victory subsided, we struggled to search for an identity as a past champion quartet. There were no Thoroughbred chapter quartets who had been faced with our circumstances. We were not acquainted with any other Society quartets who had won at such a young age. We were simply not ready to make retirement plans. We spent two years performing on chapter shows, and recorded our first two albums of contest songs and show material, while we pondered the future. During that time, we toyed with the idea of “turning pro,” but talked ourselves out of it, because of the way it might impact our family lives.
Then, we met Walter Latzko. The famed arranger had written arrangements for dozens of International Champion quartets since the 1940's, including the “Bills,” the “Suntones,” and the “Dealer's Choice,” not to mention the famous professional ladies quartet, the “Chordettes.” Discussions with Walter resulted in a plan to select Meredith Willson's “The Music Man” as the theme for our third album. This would be an unprecedented move, which would be difficult to complete, since each song would have to fit the chosen theme. No songs could be tried and dismissed due to our own limitations. We would have to make each song work.
“The Music Man” was the only Broadway show and Hollywood film production which included a barbershop quartet (the “Buffalo Bills”) in the cast. We had played the part of the quartet in a high school production of the play, so we understood the value of the music, and shared a love for the songs with most barbershoppers.
Walter agreed to write the arrangements, and we began the two year process to complete the recording. We worked the songs into our repertoire as they were completed, and Dan's wife, Cyndy, hand-sewed elaborate costumes for us. The project was a success, and gave us confidence that we were heading in the right direction. We learned that the limitations created by the theme served to enhance the art. We also learned that there would be no chapter, no Society, and no contest judges to create any more challenges for us. We would have to decide for ourselves what was important, create our own definition of success, and set our own goals. Our quartet had made an important transition; from follower to innovator.
With moms, dads, big brothers, “Thoroughbreds,” coaches and arrangers all around us, we never had a chance to get “too big for our britches.” They taught us not only about singing, but about good manners and barbershop etiquette. This early training minimized (but did not eliminate) our mistakes in public relations, which served to enhance our quartet's popularity over the years. We maintained our respect for our mentors, our families, the Society and “Joe Barbershopper,” which made for a much more rewarding career, with few regrets. We happened upon some great philosophies about quartet singing and about life, which helped keep us down to earth. Ed Gentry said it best, "In all things, be modest, because you have a heck of a lot to be modest about." Here are some other gems which stuck with us:
gift you can give someone is the opportunity to contribute."
- Jim Miller
thing about barbershopping is that everybody has the right to his
own stupid opinion."
- Mary Jo Hatton
makes a very fine hobby, but a very poor religion."
- Hugh Ingraham
quartetting is an amateur endeavor. You do it for the love of it."
- Don Clause
are on stage, there should be singing, clapping, or talking at all
times, the only exception being an effective pause."
- Jim Miller
matter whose idea it was; we're all gonna win."
- Allen Hatton
hands below the waist, unless there is a reason for them to be up
- Ron Riegler
alone do not an effective performance make."
- Walter Latzko
|"God gave you
these gifts for a reason. You have a responsibility to share them
- Don Clause
|"The most important
part of your uniform is a smile."
- Ed Weber
barbershopping in its proper place, right after God, family and
- Ed Hackett
is different than performing live."
- Bob Ernspiker
|"It is not
the few knowing ones who determine what makes a work of art great;
it is the great masses who eventually decide."
- George Gershwin
your job interferes with your barbershopping, it's time to find
a new job."
- Dwight Hatton
it wrong on purpose"
- Bob Johnson
"We have to print the
show program today,
The first two times we entered the Cardinal District Preliminary contest, we failed to qualify for the International Quartet Competition, even though we advanced in rank each year. Our first real taste of defeat came in 1977, when we placed sixth in International Competition, after having finished fourth the previous year. This formative experience had great impact on our collective character, and may have been a vital element of the level of success we eventually achieved.
After we focused on theme recordings and shows, we found that our projects took much longer to come to fruition than did individual songs. Still, we felt the impact of “The Music Man,” “Jukebox Saturday Night,” and “Here To Stay” would be commensurate with our effort. These recordings served not only to enhance our career, but we have been told they contributed to the progress of the barbershop style, as well. All of the songs included on our five previously released recordings are included here.
We had to have strong faith in the
value of these projects, in order to stick with them for the years of
preparation required by each theme. In fact, we started and abandoned
several other themes along the way, because they failed to hold our interest.
Our individual and collective interests created a “net” through which
every song and every project had to pass. We developed more faith
in ourselves and in each other. We persevered.
After winning the International Quartet Contest, a quartet is no longer eligible for Society competitions, so our new goal was simply to entertain well through chapter shows and recordings. The show audiences’ and listeners’ tastes were slightly different from those of contest audiences, so we had new “judges” to please, with obscure rules to identify and follow.
We realized there was a limit to how many songs we would be able to perform in our career, and realized that each rehearsal hour was precious. We established criteria for BSU songs and arrangements, including originality, familiarity, adaptability, and degree of difficulty, all determined by intensive research.
Kenny's many trips to book stores, record shops and sheet music stores resulted in a collection of over 500 albums and single recordings, 1500 pieces of sheet music, biographies of major American composers, and books about American Popular Music as a legitimate art form. He became a virtual musicologist. With such a list from which to choose, it was a simple matter to determine which songs or collections of songs we liked better than the others. We selected a 1940's theme for our fourth album, and for our fifth recording, we used only songs written by George Gershwin.
We considered hundreds of songs which did not make it through the “net.” Some were thrown out quickly, and others were tossed after we had tested the suitability of the arrangements. Still, some tunes were performed by the quartet on shows, but were not released on our recordings because they did not fit any of our chosen themes. Some of these were captured on live recordings, and are included here.
Somehow, we always knew that it was important to choose our mentors carefully. In turn, we enjoyed the benefits of their good taste. Bob Ernspiker, the son of Thoroughbred John Ernspiker, served as our friend, conscience and recording engineer. Bobby's high standards in the recording studio contributed much to the success of our album projects. While most quartets would spend a few days recording an album, Bobby insisted that we spend from six months to a year in the studio to produce one recording. In addition, he spent many hours perfecting his acapella recording technique, to our benefit.
As “baby-boomer” barbershoppers, we considered ourselves to be the first “second generation” barbershoppers ever to win the International Quartet Championship. Growing up in the 1960's and 1970's, we noticed that popular singers of our generation were using a different phonetic alphabet than the one we had learned through barbershopping. As we later experimented with adaptation of popular songs to the barbershop style, we discovered that our traditional word sounds did not fit. We consciously changed our pronunciation of some lyrics, to better communicate the songs' messages to general show audiences, whose “ears” had been conditioned by the recorded popular music of their time.
We analyzed the differences, and
decided the more cultured (traditional) pronunciation represented sincerity,
and the more common (pop song) pronunciation conveyed “coolness,” almost
the opposite of sincerity. This change did much to enhance the acceptance
of newer adaptations to the style, but by recognizing the difference,
we avoided compromising the integrity and sincerity of traditional barbershop
songs by continuing to use the traditional phonetic alphabet, when applicable.
We believe the changes which resulted from our observation and analysis,
along with our understanding of rhythm, tempo and meter, may have been
the greatest contributions we made to the progress of the barbershop style.
Most quartets have experienced the
joy of “woodshedding,” which is paramount to making up the arrangement
as you sing together, using only your God-given “musical ear.” Although
we usually start with a finished arrangement, if we feel a chord moving
in a different direction, we are free to embellish it. This freedom
makes rehearsals more fun, because the singer is participating in the
creation of the art. Some arrangers resent it when a quartet changes
their arrangements. Consequently, we rarely got around to singing
any of their works.
This compilation of our recorded works is humbly dedicated to a great Thoroughbred, who was our friend, and an original member of the Bluegrass Student Union, the late Paul Morris.
If you are an aspiring quartet singer, we know not whether our “secrets” may inspire you, but we offer you this unsolicited advice: A quartet is merely a piece of the conduit through which the Creator's harmony is channeled.
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