Whether it’s singing a classic Christmas tune like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the four-part harmony produced by the Altoona Horseshoe Chorus is a feast for the ears.
While barbershop-style singing sounds effortless, the precision takes practice, persistence and passion. At a recent rehearsal, the chorus spent 35 minutes getting the phrasing, tempo and pitch perfected on “Dream Lover” under the watchful eye and ear of chorus director Joe Malafarina.
For 33 years, Michael Kuzio of Altoona has been singing with the chorus and has served in various capacities, including as chairman of the group’s spring concert. His barbershop career started when he overheard a member trying to recruit someone else and decided to show up to a rehearsal.
“I was enthralled by the harmony and that’s what really got me started,” he said.
Others equally enthralled by the music or looking for a new musical outlet are invited to join the group as the chorus is looking for new members, Kuzio said. It’s the ideal time to join as they will soon begin preparing for the spring concert. Rehearsals are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays in The Sanctuary of ArtsAltoona.
Dean McKnight, 83, of Hollidaysburg has been with the chorus for 42 years, while newcomer Garrett Imes, 31, of Hollidaysburg recently attended his second rehearsal. Imes has previous experience singing barbershop and performing, but experience isn’t necessary and there are no formal auditions.
“I’m impressed with this group,” Imes said. “They’re very passionate.”
“If you like to sing and have fun, then come to a rehearsal,” said Joe Malafarina, 70, of Boalsburg, a retired music teacher who also serves as the music director of Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church in State College.
“I can tell from a distance if someone is singing and engaging. We go through a lot of songs at a rehearsal. At the end of rehearsal, if you’re having fun, then come back,” he said.
Members focus on singing for enjoyment and performing for the community, Kuzio said.
“If the enjoyment is there and you have a desire to learn and improve — those are the keys to being successful,” said Kuzio, 78. “We’re providing a pathway for any singers that aren’t looking for the competition part of it.”
The group is open to both men and women.
Hollidaysburg resident Lorelei Yeager, 56, sings tenor and joined about six months ago after serving as the group’s emcee for about two years. Her husband, Bob Yeager, also sings with the chorus.
“They’re wonderful men,” Lorelei said. “It’s not as hard as I thought it would be. They don’t judge and they’re so supportive.”
The chorus sang the national anthem at the Altoona Curve during an appearance by former Vice President Dick Cheney, and appeared at various festivals including at the Raystown Lake amphitheater and the Hartslog Festival in Alexandria, along with performances for civic events, veterans and other groups.
Horseshoe Chorus President and bass singer Harry Bailor of Altoona has been a Horseshoe Chorus member for 16 years.
“I wish I would have been able to get into it sooner. I didn’t even know barbershop existed around here. When I did find out, I called and went to a practice,” he said. “I like the harmony and the camaraderie — it’s like a family. If you need something and the chorus can do something for you, they’ll do it. Everyone works together so well. It’s a lot of fun.”
Chapter of national society
The Horseshoe Chorus is the local chapter in The Barbershop Harmony Society and is one of about 700 chapters in the United States and Canada, according to its website. In 2018, the national organization opened its ranks to women. Choruses are all-male, all-female and mixed. The Altoona chapter has about 22 members, including two female members — one of which is newcomer Karen Myers, 68, of Tyrone who sings tenor. She heard of the Horseshoe Chorus through her participation in the Blair Concert Choral, a classical singing group, and started attending rehearsals in the fall.
“I’ve sung all my life from college singing groups with close harmony to classical music. I quite enjoy it,” she said. “They are a lovely group of people and have been quite welcoming.”
“We’re so pleased to have them,” McKnight said of the women. “They really bring more to the party.”
Barbershop is defined by the Harmony Society as “four-part, unaccompanied, close-harmony singing. The tenor harmonizes above the melody. The melody is carried in the second-highest voice called the lead. The baritone provides in-between notes, to form consonant, pleasing chords. The bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes.”
“Our voices are our instruments,” Kuzio, a baritone said. The singing style combats the stereotype of “four drunks by a light pole trying to sing,” he said.
The group members range from a few in their 20s, 60s, 70s and 80s. They sing a variety of music that is arranged for four-part singing. The rise of popular groups such as Pentatonix has boosted the popularity of a cappella singing.
The chorus’s repertoire covers classic barbershop tunes such as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Heart of My Heart” and “I Love You Truly” to 1950’s doowop standards, such as “Under the Boardwalk,” and the more contemporary “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
“Barbershop has changed a lot over the years,” Malafarina said. “The genre is not clear cut anymore. New arrangers are arranging songs in new ways.”
Formal music education not required
“Most of our members have a very basic understanding of music. For learning purposes, we either make or purchase learning tracks that teach you how to sing along and teaches you your part,” Kuzio said.
Another misconception, Kuzio said, “is that you have to be a good singer. We don’t have any spectacular voices in our choir, but in the end, they all blend and sound good together.”
Another aspect Kuzio enjoys is how he can travel and find another barbershop group to sing with.
“It’s one of the benefits that I like the most. When you eventually learn the music and have it memorized, if I take a vacation to Myrtle Beach, there is a chapter there and I can go to their meetings and sing and fit right in if we are singing the same songs,” he said, “as the arrangements come from the Barbershop Society. It’s a nice aspect.”
He also likes meeting other people who like to sing.
Kuzio, Bailor, Rick Tully of Altoona and Paul Hamilton of State College are the Harmony Safari, a quartet composed of Horseshoe Chorus members.
“It’s not unusual within a chapter to also have various quartets. The bigger the chapter the more quartets you have. Being part of a quartet is like being in the chorus but also different because you have to practice a little harder and know your part because you don’t have the guy next to you to lean on,” Kuzio said.
The Horseshoe Chorus also supports the Altoona Area High School choral program.
“We like to encourage younger singers,” he said, with the hope that they will get involved in a barbershop group later in life.
That’s what Bailor, 74, did. After singing in the high school choir and his church choir, he became involved in barbershop.
“To me, music lifts the soul. You can’t listen to music and be ticked off about anything. It’s relaxing,” Bailor said.
To learn more about the Horseshoe Chorus, call Kuzio 814-381-5011 or email email@example.com.
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