Wednesday, December 7, 2011


On a Sunday evening in the late 1950s, Laurie and his father were sitting together at a meeting of the Men's Club of the Unitarian Church in Kingston, Massachusetts. The program was a concert by a barbershop quartet -- professionals or semi-professionals or at least very experienced amateurs. After a lively and enjoyable performance, they asked for four volunteers from the audience for the purpose of demonstrating that extemporaneous barbershop isn't as easy as it sounds.

The first volunteer was a bass from the choir, followed by a baritone, both excellent musicians. Then there was the question of tenors. (Tenors often are a question.) Laurie, a high school kid with an excellent ear inherited from the paternal side of the family -- his mother was severely musically challenged -- exchanged a glance with his father.

"Should we?" Laurie was always up for musical adventures.

His father shrugged his shoulders. "Why not?"

So Laurie and his father joined the church quartet as first and second tenor respectively.

The performers assigned the volunteer quartet a well-known song from the barbershop repertoire and started them off together in the four-part close and charmingly hokey harmony of the genre. Then they dropped out. Left to themselves, the church singers were supposed to become uncertain, wobble, flounder, and go down to ignominious defeat.

They didn't.They sailed right along as if they'd been doing exactly this all their lives.

The performers, as Laurie told the story decades later, "realized they'd been had" and joined back in again. "By the time we finished," Laurie said, "we were singing in eight-part harmony."

There must have been technical informalities, unplanned dissonances, and a few shaky moments. But they got away with it, everyone had a good time, and the church singers vindicated themselves. It is to be hoped that the performers learned a lesson about underestimating amateurs.