CURWENSVILLE — During the 2020-21 school year, an extracurricular group dedicated to performing barbershop music formed at Curwensville Area High School.
Junior-Senior High School Choral Director Jacob Mandell said the Barbershop Club is open to students in grades nine through 12 who are members of the senior high choir.
Mandell said he devised the club as another possibility for students to hone and showcase their singing talents.
“In lieu of the district’s usual opportunities for music department students, of which many could unfortunately not be executed this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, I wanted to provide different and new opportunities to keep students excited for the school year. The idea for a Barbershop Club actually came from an initial idea to create a Women’s Chorale, which is led by elementary music teacher, Elizabeth Heckman. Before I became the choir director, the school’s select choir was actually an all women’s group. When I reworked the makeup of the Select Choir to be a mixed voices ensemble, we lost that opportunity for young men and young women to sing together in their own ensemble.
“Heckman, is very passionate about young women’s choirs, so we both knew that she would be a perfect fit (to oversee) this new ensemble and that we could make this possible for the school’s young women. Knowing that I also had young men who would be interested in a men’s group, I decided to create an ensemble to focus on a completely different vocal style –barbershop music,” Mandell explained.
He said he chose barbershop music because most participants do not require conventional preparation to perform it, participants are often familiar with the song choices and because he appreciates the vocal harmony created through the blend of voices.
“I was exposed to singing with barbershop choruses and even subbed for a quartet when I was in college and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Barbershop is unique in that many do not need formal training in order to join a chorus or a quartet. Everything they do is without instruments and based on popular folk songs, spirituals, and popular songs, in other words, songs they already know and are familiar with. I thought it would be a great thing to expose our community and school to this truly American art form.”
The Barbershop Club performs a variety of styles of music. ”The set the club is preparing includes traditional barbershop standards, folk songs, spirituals, musical theater and popular songs,” he explained.
Mandell said the Women’s Chorale and the Barbershop Club compliment one another. “The two groups are natural opposites and they serve students according to their voice type. The Barbershop Club serves tenor and bass high school students, while the Women’s Chorale serves soprano and alto high school students.
Currently the club has only one performance scheduled. It will perform in May at Irvin Park, Curwensville, in the spring concert along with the Women’s Chorale and Curwensville Area High School’s Select Choir.
COVID-19 has created many changes for singing groups. “Both the Women’s Chorale and Barbershop Club are designed to be small groups and small gatherings are allowed under restrictions for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Barbershop Club currently has six members. As long as it has four voice parts, we are able to have the club meet with as many members as want to participate.”
He said along with the pandemic, the recent wintery weather has created even more issues for those participating in extracurricular activities. “One difficulty of the COVID-19 crisis has been the several periods of remote learning. When we are doing remote learning, all extracurricular activities are canceled. While Zoom rehearsals are possible, there is no alternative to singing together than actually being in the same room and singing together. Students can certainly sing through their parts, but would have to do so muted,” Mandell stated.
“During the past couple months, winter has definitely played a big role in several school closures, forcing remote learning and canceling rehearsals. I think that when we are out of school it makes coming to rehearsals even more meaningful, for students. They realize that we cannot take anything for granted,” Mandell added.
He said the groups have adopted new procedures to secure the health and safety of all participants. “As with all of the district’s choirs, we rehearse in a space big enough for members to maximize social distancing. Our small groups are able to rehearse in the choir and band rooms, but the large ensembles rehearse in the seats of the auditorium, facing the stage. All the participants wear regular masks for the entirety of the one hour to 90-minute rehearsals. Students do not take their masks off until they leave the physical location.
“During longer rehearsals, we leave the rehearsal space for five to 10 minutes, opening windows and closing the door, so that any aerosols that may have spread can be mitigated and aired out. The groups have become so used to these procedures that they are simply what we do at this point. We are still making quality music, even with many restrictions.”
Mandell said he very much appreciates the young singers abilities to change and adapt this year and their willingness to do what is asked of them. “I am very proud of our students for their flexibility, cooperation, and willingness to take on these challenges. They are examples of how anyone can do anything with any restrictions attached to them.”