With its utterly unique harmonies, it is hard to mistake barbershop for any other style of music. Now a new student group on campus is harnessing those singular sounds to produce some exceptional music.
The Emerald Five formed last year when group leader Dan Gross showed some of his friends a YouTube video of a barbershop championship group, which inspired the group to learn the song. They pulled together enough people to form a barbershop quartet, plus one vocal percussionist, and performed the song at the end of a wind ensemble concert in Tyler Hall. The experience was such a success they have been singing together ever since.
“Basically, barbershop is made of four parts: the lead, the second highest part, sings the melody; the tenor, the highest part, which harmonizes with the melody; the bass, the lowest part, which sings the root or the fifth; and the baritone, who sings above or below the lead to fill out the chords,” Gross said.
One of the greatest parts about barbershop music is that the vocalists can produce strong overtones. With most instruments, their scales are even-tempered, meaning that all notes are the same distance apart. While this is simplistic and easy to work with, the overtones of the notes played never quite match up, making it harder to hear. Since barbershop music is completely vocal, each singer can bend their pitch up or down a few cents to maximize the strength of the overtones and provide the beautiful sound that defines barbershop music.
“I think what drew me to barbershop was how unique the harmony was,” Gross said. “There is no other genre that quite sounds like it, even other a cappella styles.”
“Also there is no real rhythmic base for the songs, and no percussion to keep time,” said James Debiase, one of the tenors for the group. “The song just flows naturally, which is the most difficult part of our jobs.”
The group has had some changes in members since it formed, but the current lineup features Debiase and Ian Dembling on tenor, Anthony Granito on baritone, Mike Phillips on bass and Gross on vocal percussion. They also brought Jacqui Phaneuf into the fold for their rendition of Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time.”
The group performed for the Collage Concert on March 8 and has performed for a couple open mic nights around town, but is looking forward to more performances.
“We hope to eventually move into academic ensemble concerts, since we’re looking to take this thing for school credit, keep up the coffee house performances and maybe get some paying gigs in the future,” Gross said.
Gross has also had the opportunity to arrange music for the group himself, which he described as incredibly rewarding.
“With these arrangements, I can really express my musicality for the group, and be able to arrange pieces that utilize everyone’s unique talents and range, as well as giving me a chance to be a vocal percussionist for the group,” Gross said. “It’s also great practice for me as a musician, and ever since I started, my ear has improved, my musical confidence has been improved and I’ve learned more ways to communicate my ideas effectively.”
Both Gross and DeBiase said that their favorite barbershop group is Acoustix, a Texas-based quartet that won the 1990 barbershop harmony society championship.