I'm lined up with my fellow barbershop quartet members, including my mom and my aunt, along the ramp leading to the competition stage. We're waiting for the announcer to call our name, laughing anxiously about nothing in particular. "This is going to be fun!" we say, and we try to mean it.
My quartet, Anticipation, is competing in the Pacific Shores Region 12 female barbershop contest, against 23 other groups at the Nugget Casino Resort in Reno, Nevada. It's our fourth competition together. You'd think we'd be used to this by now.
I hydrated relentlessly backstage, but suddenly my throat feels parched — and as I realize there's no water nearby, panic sets in like a fog. What if I can't hold my high hanger at the end of the uptune? What if my voice cracks in the low chorus? I picture myself on stage, making a mistake in excruciating slow-motion, undoing months of work as the judges scribble furiously, angrily, on their score sheets. I gulp, then remember that gulping is bad for the vocal cords and suppress a second one.
The lights begin to dim. The emcee walks out. I close my eyes and wonder what I wonder every year: Why am I doing this?
Ask people about barbershop music, and they'll generally conjure a familiar image: four old men in bow-striped vests and straw hats, swaying with canes, warbling standards in earnest. Hello my baby, hello my darling, hello my ragtime gal!
The image is not completely absurd. In the nascent days of the Barbershop Harmony Society — an organization founded in 1938 that preserves and promotes barbershop music — these hallmarks were common. But in the eight decades since the organization was founded, bow-striped vests have given way to crisp suits; standards are still sung, but so are contemporary hits; and decorative canes have been banished to the unused props bin. There are men from all generations, including kids and teens and hipster 20-somethings, their mustaches fitting right in. And, yes, there are women.
I've known about the female barbershop organization, Sweet Adelines International, my entire life — my grandma has been a member for 50 years and counting. But as a kid, barbershop was an abstraction to me, shaded in uncoolness. When my grandma talked about her barbershop singing, I envisioned women older than I ever imagined becoming, crooning listlessly in retirement homes.
But then, when I was 10, my mom rejoined (she had been a member before I was born), and I attended my first regional contest to watch her compete with her quartet.
The competition stage looked like something out of Broadway: glaring spotlight, thick curtain, stage lights that shifted color for each performer. Two giant jumbotron screens displayed the action to those who couldn't see, as if this were a sports game featuring the fearsome battle of flashy costumes and four-part harmony.
As I watched each quartet enter and exit the vast stage — all decked out in matching sequined gowns, singing in rigorously rehearsed synchronicity and displaying carefully planned choreography moves — I felt my stomach drop. I couldn't fathom my shy mother, who often broke out into an anxiety rash during social gatherings, being so openly expressive in front of hundreds of people. Would her voice quiver? Would her eyes open wide, like a deer in the spotlight? Would she choke?
From the moment she stepped on stage, I knew I didn't need to worry. She was not just comfortable, but confident: stride brisk, smile wide, voice perfectly controlled. As the quartet finished their ballad with a hushed "Smile my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear/or else I shall be melancholy too," the arena became pin-drop silent, then erupted into rapturous applause.
The experience was, in a word, thrilling — especially once the quartet ended up taking second place, turning my mom into, for all intents and purposes, a star.
I began attending all my mom's shows and contests, reveling in the indescribable delectation of performing and competing. But my own entry into the organization would take more time. My voice lacked confidence, as did I, and the stage seemed far too enormous to fill with my meager presence. I started, then, with a small step: by attending a rehearsal with my mom and grandma for the Sacramento Valley Chorus at age 12, where I could gain confidence alongside 60 women.
Stepping onto the risers, I felt timid and awkward — and then the music began. As the chorus sang their warm-up, starting on one unison note before breaking away into four-part harmony, I felt my voice become a part of something bigger, something profound even, and my nerves dissipated. I didn't need to fill a stage; I just needed, for now, to submit my voice to this electrifying sound.
I joined the next week, quavering through an audition that I nonetheless passed, wondering if they'd think I was any good, and feeling the pressure of being the daughter of a regional star.
Me with my teenage barbershop quartet Hot Commodity and my grandma (middle), after we won a regional event for youth quartets. | (Nikki Gloudeman/Courtesy Narratively)
I became the youngest-ever person to sing with the chorus, crooning alongside women mostly in their 40s to 80s, singing and dancing and jazz hands-ing with abandon. The director, Patty, was all fire-red hair and frothy energy. She sang in a quartet with my grandma, and preferred songs that allowed her to coo and shimmy lustily. Hit me with a hot note, and watch me ... bounce!
Backstage at the contest, she would quiet her voice down to a whisper, unusual for her, and tell us to focus. Then she'd talk about how hard we'd worked and how proud she was and to remember why we did this. "Let's go!" she'd say, and we would.