As Christmas concert nears, barbershop chorus tries to find its ‘angel’s voice’

The faint sounds of “We Need a Little Christmas” escaped from the back room of Bayside Church of Christ late one October evening.

Oh we need a little Christmas, right this very minute, candles in the window …

The lyrics trailed off. Inside the room, Roger Tarpy raised his finger to halt the chorus of men before him.

The group, about 20 in all, make up the Commodore Chorus, a Norfolk-based barbershop group that rehearses in Virginia Beach and draws from across Hampton Roads. They are one of about 600 barbershop chapters in the United States, and their big holiday season was approaching.

Roger Tarpy and members of the Commodores, a local barbershop group, practice for their Christmas show. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
Roger Tarpy and members of the Commodores, a local barbershop group, practice for their Christmas show. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

Tarpy moved his right arm back and forth to show the singers how to flow from one line to the next. The men, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, stood on risers, some with music in hand, others with it memorized. They awaited instruction.

“We need to smooth out the sounds,” Tarpy directed.

He raised his hand to have them start over.

The group practices for three hours every Thursday. Their library has included everything from “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and Jason Mraz songs to older classics, such as “Irish Blessing.” They perform year-round in the community and at competitions. Two years ago, the Commodores took third place in the Mid-Atlantic District’s Southern Division.

“Barbershop music is a very special kind of music,” Tarpy said. “It’s a special kind of art form.”

He called it uniquely American.

But right now, their focus is on the approaching holiday season. Tarpy snapped his fingers to the beat of, “Need a Little Christmas,” chiding his choir members to stay on the correct note.

He hummed deeply, then raised his finger to start the singing again.

“Need a little Christmas, right this very minute. It hasn’t snowed a single flurry, but Santa dear we’re in a hurry …”

“Excellent,” Tarpy said as the choir trailed off.

The director told the singers to be sure they don’t need their music sheets by their next rehearsal. Many of them still did this night.

The Commodores sang everything from "Jingle Bell Rock" to "Need a Little Christmas." (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
The Commodores sang everything from “Jingle Bell Rock” to “Need a Little Christmas.” (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

“When you’re working with men who do this for a hobby … ” Tarpy said, shrugging with a smile.

The camaraderie and joy of singing connects the group.

“It’s fun,” Brian Allen, the assistant director, said. “I’ve been barbershopping for 44 years. I’ve been in big choruses, I’ve been in small choruses. They each have their own advantages and disadvantages, but it’s a bunch of guys who have a common interest in making good music.”

Bill Byrd has been in the group for about 40 years.

“One of the neat things about barbershop is you can make almost anything else fit into the four-part harmony,” he said.

The Commodores try to recruit new members in the fall with holiday music as their pitch.

“We’re always looking for new singers,” Tarpy said. “One of our ideas is to invite men to sing in the [Christmas] show and we don’t ask them to do anything that involves a huge commitment. People enjoy singing the Christmas music. They’re very familiar with it.”

“If you like to sing, come join us,” he said. “If you like us, maybe you’ll stay.”

When Tarpy gets the old and new members together, he strives for that special sound in barbershop music known as an “overtone.” It’s a frequency that is higher than the others. It’s also called the “fifth voice” or the “angel’s voice.”

“When you get those chords and they’re perfectly tuned, the wave forms create what’s called overtones,” Tarpy said. “You can get overtones that are high above what anybody is singing. No one is singing the note, but actually it’s a note in the chord.”

When done well, it sounds extraordinary, he said.

About 90 minutes into practice, the group launched into “Jingle Bell Rock.”

About halfway through the song, Tarpy interrupted again.

It's time for Christmas carols, according to the Commodores chorus. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
It’s time for Christmas carols, according to the Commodores chorus. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

“A little bit louder this time,” he called out, then gestured for them to start where he had cut them off.

What a bright a time, it’s the right time to rock the night away —

“That’s a barbershop chord!” Tarpy burst out.

He was grinning with excitement.

“Wow, did you hear it? Look what happens when you sing the chord right!”

The Commodores’ Christmas concert is at 3 p.m. on Dec. 13 at Bayside Church of Christ in Virginia Beach.

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