Tonight several thousand people will jam into the Axis Theater is Las Vegas to watch ten quartets compete in the finals of the international quartet contest. It is a thrilling event to witness, and unbelievably exciting to be a part of. Some friends and I will stay up late tonight to watch the live webcast. I can’t wait!
This week I’ve been reflecting on the many reasons I love barbershop. Monday I described how beautiful the music is. Tuesday I talked about the joy of performing. Wednesday I discussed the blessing of friendship it offers. Yesterday I looked at the nobility of earnest competition it offers. In this final post on barbershop, I want to explain how it has made me a better person.
But first, let me clarify an important point. Christians believe in something called “common grace,” the notion that God has endued the created order with blessings that are free to everyone to enjoy. God sends rain and sunshine for the just and unjust, the evil and the good (Matthew 5:43-45). I believe that the human capacity for music is one of those common graces of God. The same is true of the innate ability we have for deep and abiding friendships. So when I talk about how “barbershop” has changed me for the better, I just want you to know that what I really mean is how God’s grace – given through the many wonderful dimensions of barbershop – has changed me for the better.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).
With that caveat in place, here are some ways barbershop has made me a better person.
It has given me new skills. I first heard about barbershop when I was in college, but I did not pursue it as a hobby because I didn’t think I could read the music, or sing very well. I played the violin all through school, but the only singing I did was at church. Our hymnals used “shaped-notes,” a form of notation which uses a coded set of symbols to tell the singer if they are on “Do,” “Re,” “Mi,” etc. Without that system (which my granddad taught me at age 11), I didn’t think I could read music as a singer. And I certainly had no vocal training.
But when I finally mustered the nerve to join the Society, I discovered that with a lot of work, I could transfer my knowledge of shaped-notes (or the system of solfege, for you choral people) into the new style of music I was reading. As to the issue of vocal ability, well, one out of two ain’t bad! Seriously, I have learned a great deal about proper vocal technique, all of it gained from Society publications and from the directors I’ve been privileged to sing for.
Any hobby that gives you the chance to enhance a skill, to develop a previously unrecognized potential, is a great hobby. And when you can do this while having a blast, that is a special form of grace.
It has helped me overcome deep feelings of inadequacy. When I finally joined the Society, I was in awe of the quartets I heard at my little chapter in Valparaiso IN. And when I went to my first international to hear the best of the best, I was simply blown away. I never dreamed I could be in a quartet that was worthy of the international stage. If someone would have told me in 1998 that some day I would be in a quartet that sang at Carnegie Hall, that performed in countries around the world, that received thunderous standing ovations at international, I would never have believed them!
And in some ways, I still don’t! My experiences with my quartet (Lunch Break) were so far beyond my wildest imaginations that it all seems very surreal. Even this week while watching the quartet contest semifinal round I had to remind myself that I actually made the finals once. I’ve just always thought of myself more as a fan than anything else, and it is hard for me to believe that I could enjoy a little bit of the same success so many heroes have.
I suppose a lot of my feelings of low self-worth stem from fatherlessness – it is a bit of a burden to know that your own father wanted nothing to do with you. And being overweight and often feeling helpless to do anything about it doesn’t enhance your self-image. But barbershop has taught me that with enough hard work, with the help of lots of friends (especially a GREAT group of guys to sing with), and with the love that the Society shares, you can overcome a lot of (imaginary) obstacles.
It has made me a better preacher. One of the unexpected blessings of barbershop for me has been the positive impact it has had on my preaching. For example, striving to achieve at a high level musically requires a tremendous attention to detail. Over time, this becomes a habit that translates into other parts of your life – in my case, as a more meticulous student of Scripture. In the same vein, hundreds of performance opportunities has developed a better sense of timing and audience rapport which is extremely valuable as a public speaker.
Further, involvement in the Society has helped me see the challenges that face any non-profit volunteer organization, which has tremendous applicability to my church work. And through my years as a faculty member at the Society’s primary educational outreach (Harmony University), I have studied and taught about subjects like leadership and the brain-music connection that have intersected with my preaching life in all sorts of unexpected ways.
And maybe the primary way barbershop has enhanced my preaching is through my relationships with my non-Christians friends. As a preacher it is easy to be surrounded by other Christians all the time. Experiencing a much more diverse social outlet has made me far more sympathetic to some of the challenges facing my church members who sometimes work in environments that are not always faith-affirming. And, discussing very sensitive and controversial topics with my non-christian friends in barbershop has helped me understand far better those opposing views.
Finally, barbershop has made me a better husband. Well, I think so – Mrs. Scott may not! Much of this has to do with the lyrics of classic barbershop music. Songs like Always or The Sunshine of Your Smile – lyrics that allow a man to reach into his own heart and express things to his love that otherwise seem impossible to put into words.
I’ll never forget a chorus rehearsal in which we prepared to sing one of these classic love songs by sharing with each other the moment we knew that we were in love with our sweethearts. After several very heartfelt stories, one of the oldest men in the chorus spoke up and said, “The first thing I’m gonna do when I get home is kiss my wife!” The combination of fraternity and harmony is powerful – it makes us better men, and as better men, better husbands.
Men who join a hobby to escape from their wives are a sad caricature of what real manhood is. But through its richly evocative music, barbershop offers me a chance to sing with my buddies but think a lot about my wife. That’s a win-win!
Kristi and I married pretty late in life. I often prayed that God would bless me with marriage, but for many years it seemed like an impossible dream! But then we reconnected, and she came with me to the 2010 convention, where my chorus sang these words:
Time after timeI tell myself I’m so luckyTo be loving youI’m so lucky to beThe one you run to seeIn the eveningWhen the day is throughI only know what I knowThe passing years will showYou kept my love so youngSo newAnd time after timeYou’ll hear me say that i’mSo lucky to be loving you
Here is a little documentary that was made of my quartet’s final contest appearance. It captures so much of what I’ve talked about this week.