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Barbershoppers bring harmony to Pittsburgh |

Barbershoppers bring harmony to Pittsburgh

James Knox | Trib Total Media
The Yonge Guns Quartet from Toronto, Ontario, Canada (from left) Chris Tanaka-Mann, Reuven Grajner, Greg Mallett and Jonah Lazar perform 'If My Friends Could See Me Now/Hey Look Me Over' medley Tuesday June 30, 2015 on a park bench along Liberty Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh.

There’s harmony in Pittsburgh this week.

The Barbershop Harmony Society, with some 5,500 members from around the world, is in town for its annual convention. The society practices and promotes the classic barbershop vocal harmony style of music, often performed by a quartet of four harmonizing singers, typically with two tenors, a baritone and a bass.

Barbershop music has understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, according to the Nashville-based organization, which has 800 chapters and is 77 years old.

The highly informal, a cappella music originated in the late 19th century, when barbershops — segregated according to race — served as community centers of sorts for African-Americans, says society spokesman and singer Brian Lynch. As men socialized and waited their turn for a haircut, they would sing spontaneously in harmony with each other, and the singing became part of an everyday pastime.

“It wasn’t planned or designed music,” says Lynch, 53, a bass from Kenosha, Wis. “It just evolved. You harmonize by ear.”

Barbershop music is highly creative and often erupts spontaneously, like it did June 30 at the Westin Convention Center Pittsburgh hotel, Downtown, the site for many of the convention’s activities. Lynch asked three convention-goers in the lobby to join him in singing a quick song, and passersby stopped to listen.

Such music differs greatly from what is common in the electronic age, Lynch says.

“Everybody walks down the street with earbuds on,” he says. “They’re not participating in the music. They are consuming it.”

While barbershop singing has historical roots and an old-fashion feel, there is a youth movement in the pastime. Lynch says some singers are even kids as young as 12. Singers are mostly male, but there are some all-female groups along with some mixed groups.

When they aren’t at the annual Barbershop Harmony Society convention, singers perform in hospitals, veterans organizations, restaurants and nursing homes.

One Canadian group — Toronto-based Yonge Guns Quartet — has three college students and a graduate in their 20s. They stood on a Downtown street corner and gave a demonstration.

Members say their singing is a passionate hobby, but some make a career out of it, says Chris Tanaka-Mann, 25, a graduate of the University of Toronto.

They often give people pleasant surprises, like when people are dining at a restaurant and encounter an unexpected serenade. Other times, the group’s performances are planned. It takes little to no preparation or setup, as the singers don’t use instruments.

“This art form is so incredible,” says Reuven Grajner, 21, a student at the University of Toronto. “We can perform anytime, anywhere.

“We work hard. When we get together, we put all the pieces together. … Everyone loves to sing so much.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7824.

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