It was just after five on a Monday afternoon and Jim Cullen decided to lay down for a little nap. It felt so good to rest his eyes, he recalled, that he let them stay shut until eight. That’s when he woke up in a hurry.
“Oh my god,” he said. “I’m missing my Monday night.”
Over a decade earlier, Cullen started a new Monday night tradition in his own life thanks to a suggestion from his sister. “[I have a friend who’s] having a great time [singing in a barbershop chorus]. Why don’t you go,” she recommended.
So Cullen went. He’s been going ever since.
The Singing Capital Chorus is a unique fraternity of men. They range in age from 24 to 93 and come from over the greater Washington region. What brings them together is that they love to sing. But it isn’t just singing that they love, it’s the “lock and ring” of Barbershop harmony.
“What I enjoyed was what I was hearing,” Cullen said of the Barbershop sound he was introduced to at his first rehearsal meeting. “I was just fascinated by the four parts, [the] all male parts. The notes being so close together and the sound it makes just turned me on.”
What Cullen was hearing is the “lock and ring.” That “lock and ring” is what happens when all the voices in a chorus or quartet begin to match up, causing the sound to resonate in a certain way. That sound, at its climax in tone and quality, locks in position and rings in such a way that the entire body can physically feel the chord being produced. It’s like a symphony of strings swelling on that perfect chord sending signals to your brain to have your hairs stand on end. That’s what catches the men in the Singing Capital Chorus each Monday and keeps them coming back for more.
Barbershop quartets and choruses are often misunderstood according to the group’s director of almost 20 years, Bill Colosimo, because Babershop music is not a widely understood genre of music. Especially from within the scope of modern pop culture.
According to Colosimo, young men and women are more inclined to commit and practice an art form they understand and have fun doing. Once they’re hooked, they’re hooked for good.
Mario Sengco, one of the younger members of the group at age 39, admitted he had preconceived notions about what being in a Barbershop group was going to be like. He thought it would be old fashioned and hokey, but Sengco’s love and appreciation for an art form he knew very little about four years ago now grows daily.
“I have a lot of music experience so I thought it was going to be easy to sing in harmony especially [since] I sang in a men’s ensemble before,” he said.
Sengco was a member of the Anne Arundel, Md. chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society before moving his act into the District to participate in the Singing Capital Chorus. He was looking for a group who sings year-round to perform with when his group the Annapolis Chorale shutdown.
Sengco is one of many young gentlemen who have joined the Singing Capital Chorus as a way to stay connected to music and learn an art form not typically taught in a majority of schools. “At first I didn’t understand what it [Barbershop harmony] really was and [then] once I got into it and I started to listen to recordings I said, ‘Wow, this is a great sound.’”
It all goes back to the “lock and ring.” Once the sound of Barbershop catches your ear it sinks into your soul and stays put. That’s what happened with the group’s oldest active member Fred Peters.
“I remember going to some of the concerts that the DC chapter [of the Barbershop Harmony Society] put on at Constitution Hall. They used to fill that hall, 3,800 seats, fill it to the rafters. People were waiting outside,” 93-year-old Peters said.
That’s right. These men were playing sold out shows at Constitution Hall singing nothing but a Capella Barbershop music. They even won the first-ever International Barbershop competition live from Constitution Hall in 1954. There were no fancy light shows. There were no outrageous costume changes. There was no band. All the men had was their voices, each other, and a hall to hear the sweet vibrations of their collective voice echo with an audience’s applause to follow.
The audience isn’t what they sing for, though, even if applause is something they’re thankful for.
Chris May came to Washington, D.C. in 1951 in the middle of the Korean War and joined the group in 1954. That was the first year the Singing Capital Chorus entered and won the International competition of the Barbershop Harmony Society at Constitution Hall. He was in his mid-twenties then but continues to show his face and causes a collective ruckus with his fellow Barbershoppers on Monday nights from the basement of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Tenleytown.
When asked what keeps him coming back, he was quick to respond. “It’s the love of harmony singing for one and it’s the fellowship of the men for the other because something special about this group is that it gathers in men of all ages so that you can have men in their twenties singing with men in their eighties and the age doesn’t make any difference,” he said.
“It’s the love of singing that does it and that’s special in [today’s] society which segments so many activities by age – not here. If you can carry a tune, you’re in.”
The Singing Capital Chorus isn’t your average college fraternity, but that’s how the members describe their experience. So what makes this fraternity different from all other fraternities? Well – besides the whole singing thing – not much else.
Fraternities today aren’t limited to Greek Life on college campuses. There are other options for men to get that type of bond without a pledge program to adhere to. The armed forces, club and team sports, fantasy leagues, and live video gaming are all activities men participate in to keep camaraderie alive and well during their free time.
There’s something to be said about a group of grown men ranging in age from 24 to 93 who see nothing wrong with acting like a group of high school freshman in an after school chorus rehearsal once a week on Monday nights.
The men who make up the Singing Capital Chorus are brothers, there’s no doubt about it, and they are a family who love to sing all while cracking jokes from across the room with each other.
“I have been privileged to direct the Singing Capital Chorus since 1991,” Colosimo said. “In that time, I have learned and benefited so much more from them than they have from me! I have been honored to lead them to performance and competition successes, but they have honored me most by teaching and guiding me through difficult times in my and my family’s life with support and wisdom.”
“All I have learned and taught others regarding choral directing and coaching I have sought to share with these fine, willing and patient men. Together, we have forged a musical and fraternal bond which is both satisfying to us and I believe attractive to other men, potential members as a ‘special commodity’ not found among other ‘activities’.”
You can see the Singing Capital Chorus and many more Barbershop groups this weekend on November 6 at American University’s Greenberg Theatre for the 64th annual “Harvest of Harmony” concert.
Here’s the information:
Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre
4200 Wisconsin Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20016
Phone: (202) 885-2587
Map & Directions
- Plenty of reasonably-priced garage parking. Enter from Van Ness Street if driving.
- A short walk from Metro’s Tenleytown stop.
Tickets are still available: