Why I Love Barbershop: Reason 5 – It Has Made Me a Better Person

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 time
I tell myself I’m so lucky
To be loving you
I’m so lucky to be
The one you run to see
In the evening
When the day is through
I only know what I know
The passing years will show
You kept my love so young
So new
And time after time
You’ll hear me say that i’m
So lucky to be loving you
Even writing them now causes me to tear up. What other hobby reinforces by word and music how lucky a husband is to be married to his wife?
These are just a few of the ways barbershop has made me a better person – that God’s common grace has made me a better person. Psalm 13:6 says, “I will sing to the Lordbecause he has dealt bountifully with me.” The blessing of barbershop has indeed been a bountiful one to me.

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.

Why I Love Barbershop Music: Reason 4 – Competition

Today is the international chorus contest at the Barbershop Harmony Society‘s convention in Las Vegas. Hundreds of men from around the world are about to step foot on stage and deliver in roughly eight minutes the results of hundreds of hours of rehearsal and preparation. And tomorrow night is the finals of the quartet contest, in which a new international quartet champion will be crowned. All of this brings me to the fourth reason I love barbershop – competition.

Competition can certainly bring out the worst in people. It sometimes creates jealousy, resentment, and even hatred. The world of barbershop is not immune to these dark emotions. But the reason that some people sink into this ugly mindset is because they misunderstand the true purpose of competition. Scripture offers some crucial insight into genuine value of competition.

The Bible frequently uses the imagery of an athletic competition to describe the discipline and determination we need to serve the Lord. The ancient city of Corinth hosted a prominent athletic festival, which may explain why the apostle Paul used running and boxing to illustrate the self-control demanded by Christianity:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

“Run that you may obtain it.” Run to win! This kind of language only makes sense to me if the apostle believed there was a way to reconcile competition with consecration. But how?

Here is the key. Competition can be God-honoring, as long as we understand that competition is not an end. It is a means to an end, and that end is to glorify God and not ourselves.

The objective of competition is to glorify God – that is the purpose of everything we do. “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). My mission as a human being is to magnify the God who made me, using the blessings He has given me. Competition is a vehicle for the exaltation of God. How does it do this? Because competing with someone else brings out the best in us, and our best is precisely what we all should give the Lord.

From this point of view, the real measure of victory is not necessarily a score or a medal. Michael Jordan would beat me a million straight games of one-on-one – but what would be the point? He could beat me without breaking a sweat. I break into a sweat typing! The real issue is not what a scoreboard or a judging panel says. The real issue is, have I used what God has given me the very best that I can to glorify Him, and competition elicits from us the best we have to offer.

This mindset transforms my attitude toward other competitors, particularly if they outscore me. If competition is God-centered, then I can rejoice in the success of others as long as I know I have given all I can to glorify God.  But a person who resents the success of others is self-centered, and destined to a lifetime of jealous misery.

When Kristi and I started dating, she very sweetly decided to come to one of  the Society’s international conventions. After a couple of days, I asked her what she thought. And her response was interesting. She said what really stuck out to her was how supportive everyone was even when they were competing against each other. And that is indeed what barbershop at its best looks like. It is not at all uncommon for the member of one quartet or chorus to coach a group he will be competing against. Can you imagine Coach K offering to help Roy Williams out with his offense? That would never happen in a lot of competitive environments, but it happens in barbershop all the time.

So to my barbershop friends at Vegas who are believers, “Sing to win!” Just remember what winning really is. It is not competing against someone else, but with someone else, in order to extract the very best you have, to the glory of God.

Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,

Let every game’s end find you still upon the battling line;

For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,

He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game.

From Alumnus Football, by Grantland Rice

And since I mentioned my wife, here is her favorite barbershop contest moment, courtesy of the Ambassadors of Harmony!


Why I Love Barbershop Music: Reason 3 – Friendships

I am a proud member of the Barbershop Harmony Society which is hosting its international convention this week in Vegas. Since I can’t be there to enjoy the fun, I’m listing the reasons I love this hobby. Monday I talked about how beautiful the music is. Yesterday, I reflected on how fun performing is. And today, I want to talk about friendships.

But first a little backstory.

Not long before I joined the Society I was preaching in northwest Indiana. One of the guys in my church was very involved in theater, and he decided to start a little community theater group in the township where his family lived. He knew I liked music and was a ham, so he asked me to audition for a couple of the productions. I played “Marryin’ Sam” in Lil Abner, and the mayor in Bye Bye Birdie. It was a lot of fun! And since several of us from church were involved, it was a great way to be together.

One night after we finished Bye Bye Birdie, several of us decided we wanted to hang out, and since I had a parsonage, I invited the cast to come to my place. As it turned out, none of the other cast members that went to church with me came, but several other cast members did. And as we sat in my living room playing games, I realized that this was the first time I had people in my house that I had no church connection with since…well, forever.

And so I decided that night that if I was going to follow the example of Jesus, who made a point of befriending people outside of the circle of disciples, that I needed to do the same. So I made a New Year’s Resolution to join either a Toastmasters club or a barbershop chapter, searched for a local chorus on the internet, and the rest is history.

That decision has paid off in ways I could never have imagined. I’ve made friends all around the world, from an enormous variety of religious, political, and social backgrounds. I’m missing a lot of them this week!

It is no secret that America is a deeply divided nation. The level of vitriol on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is astonishing. There are lots of reasons for the fragmented nature of civic life in our country, but one of the biggest factors is that too many Americans are content to live in tiny ideological bubbles, listening only to media sources that they agree with, socializing only with those who share the same beliefs. Barbershop provides a beautiful outlet to break out of these sorts of cocoons and do what sociologist Jonathan Haidt recommends:

Make an effort to meet someone on the other side. Only with people who challenge us can we find the truth.

Through barbershop I’ve engaged in incredibly interesting – and for the most part, amiable and respectful – discussions about sensitive issues like belief in God, the basis of morality, and same-sex marriage. These exchanges have helped me better understand those who disagree with me, and those friends have forced me to sharpen my own thinking. It is all too easy to dehumanize the people who disagree with us as opponents and enemies. But you can’t dehumanize someone you are ringing a chord with!

But most of all, I am thankful for the love and support this wide network of friendships has shown Kristi and me as she has battled cancer. We are blessed with a large circle of friends through our church connections, but in addition to that fellowship, we know that there are people all over the world who are a part of the barbershop family who are praying for us. It means more than we can say.

Longfellow once said that “Music is the universal language of mankind.” Sharing it with each other is a powerful way to transcend the Babel of division and learn to understand one another. Barbershop harmony offers a path for me and many others to seek the deeper harmony of our shared humanity.

For a powerful example of the transcendent power of harmony, enjoy this championship performance from New Zealand’s Musical Island Boys!


Why I Love Barbershop Music: Reason 2 – Performing Is Rewarding

This week I am celebrating the joys of being a barbershop singer while the Barbershop Harmony Society is holding its annual international convention in Las Vegas. Yesterday I focused on how beautiful barbershop harmony is. Today’s topic is how much fun performing is.

When a novelist or a filmmaker creates something, the feedback is not instantaneous. There is often quite a bit of lag time between the production of the novel/movie and its actual reception by readers/audiences. But when a musician performs in front of a live audience, the response is immediate, and that is extremely gratifying.

So performing is fun – especially when everything clicks! And the hobby of barbershop gives amateur musicians like me a chance to perform. Whether in a chorus (which is how most of us initially experience the hobby) or in a quartet (which is the coolest way to experience it in my opinion), singing beautiful music to an appreciative audience is a blast.

But there is a trap here. The thrill of performing can easily become a self-centered enterprise in which the music is all about you as the performer rather than the audience. That’s when it becomes tacky, like the husband who gives his wife a “gift” that’s really more for him than her. An audience can sense that it is a mere bystander to a performance that is all about the performer. On the other hand, an audience can also feel when a performer is putting it all on the line to give it a great show, and when that happens, the connection between musician and audience is magical.

My quartet (Lunch Break) does a lot of silly stuff, which means that we get an even more immediate sense of feedback from the audience than other performers do – we hear laughter (sometimes!) during our numbers. In a very real sense, the audience becomes a part of the performance when you do comedy – you are virtually inviting the audience on stage with you. So when it comes together, it is truly a team effort.

But when we started singing ten years ago, I had no idea just how much of an impact comedy could have on an audience. One of our very first shows, after the performance went out to the lobby to meet and greet those who attended. A woman came up to us and explained that she had lost her husband some time ago, and had not laughed since then – until our show. This floored me – we were just four guys acting goofy on stage. But to her, this performance meant something much more.

Over the years these stories multiplied. Those grieving the loss of loved ones; children with special needs; a cancer patient who nearly took his own life until he watched our DVD. Story after story like this made me understand that performing can be about so much more than getting applause. It can be an act of ministry, a way to serve those who are in need of the soothing balm that music provides.

And ironically, by shifting the focus of the performance from me to the audience, from getting to giving, I found that I enjoyed the experience so much more. Instead of being gripped with tension over how well I performed, I was free to focus on how to serve the audience.

Jesus once said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Performing in barbershop has helped me to understand more keenly how true this is. I love this hobby because it has shown more that performing is rewarding in ways I could never have imagined.

And for an example of a quartet giving itself to the audience, enjoy this performance by Crossroads!


Why I Love Barbershop Music: Reason 1 – It Is Beautiful

This week is the international convention of the Barbershop Harmony Society. Many of you have probably never heard a barbershop quartet before, much less that there is an international organization devoted to this musical style. But there are thousands of people all over the world who are members of this organization, and every year the Society has a convention the week of July 4th. The convention offers classes, workshops, and several contests (including a quartet contest and a chorus contest). It is a great week for those who enjoy this hobby!

And I am one of those. I joined the Society in 1998, and it has given me more fun and more friends than I could have ever imagined. I can’t make it to the convention in Vegas this week, so instead, I thought I would participate virtually by reflecting on why I love this hobby so much. So this week I will give five reasons why I love being a barbershopper.

And here’s the first – the music is beautiful. Continue reading

“The Dangers of Sophistication” in Barbershop Music and Worship Music

I live in two “worlds” – my church world and my barbershop world. Through preaching and teaching I have made many friends in churches around the world, and through the hobby of barbershop quartet singing I have made another set of friends around the world. Both of these circles of friendship are special to me and have given me great joy. Some of my closest friends are those who share the same overlapping circles.

But there is another sense in which these worlds intersect – music is vital to both. And in my own particular church background, the overlap is even greater, since our singing is done as four-part a cappella harmony, very similar to barbershop music. In this post I want to raise some concerns I have about music in worship that parallel concerns about music in barbershop.

The title of this article is inspired by an article written many years ago (“The Dangers of Sophistication”) by a barbershop music arranger named Val Hicks. In the article, Hicks lamented certain trends he saw in the barbershop style of music. As I reflect on music used in worship (at least in my church circles), I see some of the same dangers. Continue reading