By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
On a sunny afternoon in Costa Mesa, Cassie Parmenter and a legion of girls are singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in the barbershop style. They are thinking, I suspect, in that teenage-girl way, about how much more awesome it is to be singing onstage with 250 of their best friends than by themselves in the shower.
(Click to enlarge)
Kadee, Cassie, Star, Daniela
Parmenter is 16 years old and a junior at Jurupa Valley High School. She and the others have been here at the “Diva Day” festival at Orange Coast College for several hours already, dropped off in droves from high schools throughout the Southland (Long Beach to Ontario, Torrance to Tustin, Alhambra to Fontana, Granada Hills, Riverside, the list goes on). They have been attending voice classes, choreography clinics and performance workshops all about the ins and outs of barbershop.
You don’t need several hundred other voices to do barbershop, just three friends who want to sing. Barbershop is the style of a cappella singing done in quartets. Do you recall The Chordettes and “Mr. Sandman”? That’s barbershop, or “beauty shop” in the ironic, postquaint, postfeminist vernacular of the all-female groups. Irony is big in barbershop right now. At “Diva Day,” I hear a cheeky Starbucks parody of “Java Jive” (“I love Starbucks nice and hot”).
Many of the girls at “Diva Day” don’t know how to read sheet music and learn their parts from CDs that break down the arrangements into their different vocal parts. In her fledgling quartet, Parmenter sings lead, which means she carries the melody. Her best friend, Daniela Godinez, is the deep-voiced baritone. Their classmates Star Rowland and Kadee Patterson sing tenor and bass, respectively.
“I’d never talked to Daniela before except in homeroom,” says Parmenter. “Aside from, like, ‘Can you hand me this?’ or something. But now we’re best friends. We met at the last “Diva Day.” I was off by myself eating lunch, and she was off by herself also eating lunch. We got to talking.”
Barbershop singing is something Parmenter keeps separate from her school life, for the most part. She’s had friends come watch her sing only to see them leave thinking the whole thing is weird. Parmenter, however, is undeterred.
“We would like to practice three hours a week,” she says. “But our bass is very involved in water polo. Our baritone is very involved in AP English work. I’m very involved in choir. And Star can’t go to people’s homes that often. I don’t know why. So it’s been tough to make our schedules work.”
Parmenter speaks in a terse and exacting voice. It sounds crisp and angular, and belies her softly rounded, wholesome good looks. Hers is exactly the kind of elocution you need for a singing mode that asks four different people to match all their vowels.
“My favorite song is the coffee song,” she says.
“You mean ‘Java Jive’!” someone else says. “Why?”
“Because I love coffee.”
“What do girls love besides music?” says Nanci Evarts, a longtime barbershopper. Evarts has been guiding me through this old-fashioned world of girls who sing with girls. “They love each other and camaraderie.”
Evarts is a member of the Harborlites Chorus of Anaheim. The Harborlites won the international barbershop competition in Calgary last year. “We have a very dynamic front row,” she says. “They’re practically doing backflips.” The Harborlites were so energetic, in fact, that a rumor began to percolate that they were acting in an unsportsmanlike fashion by loading the front row with 20-year-olds. In response, the women printed their ages on their T-shirts: 55, 42, 30, 16. There is, allegedly, an 80 running around somewhere.
Performers are judged on sound, music, showmanship and the highly subjective category of “expression” — or, how well you tell the story of the song. “Take the song ‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’” says Evarts, as Parmenter plunges back into the rehearsal melee. “It’s about a hot and sexy woman. We have to transform from teachers and homemakers, and in some cases grandmothers, into flirty girl Sweet Georgia Brown. That’s, shall we say, a challenge. You have to live the character in order to portray it.”
Another challenge is to make the quartet parts work together while still holding your own within the group. Since no musical instruments are used in barbershop, you must create your own accompaniment using only voice. It’s the singing equivalent of everybody talking about four different things at the same time on the same subject. You have to end sentences together. These skills are the native province of teenage girls.
Harmonizing en masse, the girls onstage sound about as close to a choir of angels as I’ve ever heard. Of course, even if they’ve given up a Saturday to be here, they’re not angels. I heard that one of the organizers heard that one of the other organizers heard that a couple of the girls said that some of the girls — and we’re not naming names here — had been coming by early in the morning for the free juice and cookies, then sneaking out and cutting clinics to drive off to the nearby South Coast Plaza mall, probably, and were planning on sneaking back just in time for the grand-finale performance later in the evening.
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