They hum. They hiss.
They sing “bee-bee-bee” and “bay-bay-bay” up and down the musical scale, warming up their vocal chords for a three-hour rehearsal.
And when director Bonnie Jeanne Massey’s new cellphone rings — she’s not sure how to silence it — she buries it deep in her purse and tosses it out of the way.
Nothing is to interfere with this weekly rehearsal of the Seattle Shores Chorus, a female vocal group that dates to the early 1950s — one that still has a couple of members from the early days, and would love to welcome new voices.
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“Why do I do it? Because it’s fun,” said Opal Hicks, of Seattle’s Ravenna area, who started singing with the group when Harry Truman was president, the U.S. had 48 states, and a first-class stamp cost three cents.
Hicks was front and center at the recent rehearsal as chorus members placed hands on their hearts in “This is My Country,” mimicked animal noises in “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and rocked with the rhythm of Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”
“Smile and sing it like you mean it,” director Massey reminded the 16 singers, later telling a reporter: “You never have a perfect performance. There’s always something you can improve on.”
On Saturday night, the women — ranging in age from 13 to nearly 90 — will be on the bill at “Groovy,” an a cappella celebration of hits from the 1960s and 1970s. The event, open to the public at the Shorecrest Performing Arts Centers, is hosted by an all-male group, the Seattle SeaChordsmen.
Performers will wear tie-dyed outfits, and invite audience members to also don 1960s gear.
The women’s chorus also has been polishing numbers for visits to senior centers and retirement homes — they do about two a month and are booked into 2014. And they’re gearing up for a September benefit for Operation Smile, which surgically repairs facial deformities in children around the globe.
This style of vocal harmony, performed without instrumental accompaniment, is widely known as barbershop music, and women’s groups have an organization of their own — Sweet Adelines International, founded in Tulsa, Okla., in 1945.
Part of the fun, the singers say, is expanding their repertoire beyond traditional barbershop fare: Pop tunes. Show tunes. Patriotic tunes. Old standards and recent hits — as long as it can be arranged for four-part harmony.
The original Seattle Chapter of Sweet Adelines, first in the Northwest, was founded in 1950, chartered in 1953, and celebrated its 60th anniversary last month.
Hicks, a former piano teacher and a longtime secretary at the University of Washington, was a newlywed when her husband took her to a barbershop concert at downtown Seattle’s Metropolitan Theatre.
During intermission, a woman came on stage and said a women’s vocal group was being formed, giving a phone number that recruits could call.
“My husband said, ‘You should do that.’ It was more his idea than mine,” she said.
She was quickly hooked by the energy and camaraderie, and she was a natural for the group, having sung in church and school choirs, and studied music in college.
Her husband, Jack Hicks, became the group’s first director, and later, Opal Hicks served as director for six years in the 1960s.
As the only remaining original member of the group, Hicks is the longest-active member of a Sweet Adelines chorus in the Northwest. She’d rather not discuss her current age, but she’s willing to say she was 27 when she joined the group in 1951 — and you can do the math if you feel the need.
Another chorus member with more than a half-century of experience is Lois Anderson of Bothell, who’ll turn 90 next month. In 1961, she was a charter member of a second local Sweet Adelines group, the North Shore Chorus, based in Lake City.
“At the time I joined I had four small children and was working (as an accountant),” Anderson said. “This was kind of a relief. … It perked me up.”
In 1980, the two groups merged, becoming the Seattle Shores Chorus.
Youngest, not newest
The chorus’ youngest member — by more than two decades — is Ashley Fowler, 13, whose grandmother sang with the group until a few years ago.
She dreams of winning a crown as a “queen of harmony,” the distinction given to winners of Sweet Adelines quartet championships. “I’ve always been singing, humming, tapping my foot to the music.”
At rehearsals, it may seem Ashley has a roomful of grandmothers, but she finds a comfortable sisterhood there. “I feel like I fit in. It’s a good group.”
She points out that although she’s the youngest member, she’s not the newest, and she enjoys making new members feel at home.
Ashley is a lead in the chorus, meaning she’s one of the voices typically singing the melody.
Other parts of the vocal array are the tenors, hitting the high notes; the bass voices, anchoring the low notes; and baritones, singing notes that complete the chords, usually below the lead.
A full, rich harmony depends on each section hitting its notes clearly and precisely, a fact that singers say provides both the challenge and satisfaction of barbershop singing.
Keeping tradition alive
As much as the chorus honors its history, members say keeping the tradition alive will depend on adding new faces and new energy.
From a high of more than 70 members in the 1980s, the Seattle Shores Chorus roster now lists 21 names.
Newcomers don’t need a background in music, said Linea Croly, assistant director of the Seattle Shores Chorus. “We’d just as soon that they just want to experience the joy of singing,” she said. “And we’ll take it from there.”
A drop-in participation is not unique to Seattle.
Ann-Marie Dowling, membership manager for Sweet Adelines International, said overall membership peaked in 1983 at nearly 34,000, and now stands at about 23,000.
“As time moves on, it seems every generation just gets busier and busier, and this can be quite a time commitment,” she said.
Men’s groups have seen a similar decrease, with membership down about a third from a 1980s peak of 36,000, said Brian Lynch, spokesman for the Nashville-based Barbershop Harmony Society.
One hopeful note, Lynch said, is a recent increase in members in their late teens.
“People who join tend to stay,” said Lynch. “We feel if we can keep someone for three years we can keep them for life.”
Jack Broom: firstname.lastname@example.org