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Forging bonds of sisterhood in four-part, a capella harmony

The focus will be on camaraderie and learning when Halifax women's barbershop chorus the ScotianAires takes part in Harmony International Inc.'s annual competition and convention, Wednesday to Nov. 6 in Rhode Island.

Adele Merritt describes it as "a wall of sound."

When the ScotianAires perform in four-part a capella harmony, the tunes feature all four parts, all the time.

The group includes more than 50 women from all over Halifax Regional Municipality, ranging in age from their 20s to 80s, who come together to share their love of singing, performing arrangements of popular tunes sung in barbershop style.

"It originated as a male genre, so we still use the male terms, bass, tenor, baritones rather than sopranos and altos," Merritt explains.

The group is part of Harmony Inc., an international non-profit organization that holds yearly contests and conventions. This year's event is in Providence, Rhode Island, Nov. 2 to 6. It is expected to draw around 3,000 women singers with more than 20 choruses and about 40 quartets competing.

In order to compete, groups must reach a designated score at regional events. In June, The ScotianAires easily surpassed the mark as they topped the field at the chorus finals in Sackville, N.B., with their performance of This Could Be Something Big and What I'll Do?, narrowly outpointing Valley Voices from Kentville, with the Sea Belles from Saint John, N.B., coming third. 

Tonic! comprised of ScotianAires members Merritt (bass), Mary Gareau (tenor), Marion Fraser-Pritchard (lead) and Cathy Hunter, baritone, also met the standard as it easily won the quartet competition and will also compete in Rhode Island.

cl101916scotianaires1The ScotianAires, a Halifax women's barbershop chorus, has members ranging in age from their 20s to 80s who come from all over Halifax Regional Municipality. (CHRISTIAN LAFORCE / Local Xpress)

Groups are judged on the total package including music, presentation and singing. They wear costumes and have choreographed movements.

"We are put under the microscope and the intent is improvement," says Merritt, who teaches music to students in Grades 3 to 6 and boys in Grades 7 to 9 at Sacred Heart School of Halifax.

"We bring a performance that is authentic as it can be and judges sit at a table and assign you a mark. They meet with each chorus and quartet and give an evaluation on strengths and where to improve. It's an amazing experience and a lot of fun."

Spending the weekend away together puts a focus on camaraderie and sisterhood.

"We all support each other and sing in each others' rooms, it's lovely."

And there are friends made at previous competitions to reconnect with during a packed weekend with workshops and classes and watching other groups perform.

Previous international winners are dubbed Harmony Queens and receive a crown to wear at future Harmony conventions. Two members of the current ScotianAires are Harmony Queens and will be wearing their crowns.

While participating at the competitions gives members something to work toward, rehearsals and other performances keep members engaged through the year.

The Scotianaires are slated to perform at Halifax Stanfield International Airport on Dec. 8 (the above video is from last year) and are already signed up for various tree-lightings and performances in nursing homes, including the Cobequid tree-lighting ceremony, says director Sue Kember. The group also has a show scheduled on April 1 at the Bella Rose Arts Centre.

Kember recalls the first time she attended a ScotianAires rehearsal.

"It was at the end of November and I was mesmerized by the four-part harmony. I remember the goosebumps I got listening to the Christmas songs." 

The native of Guelph, Ont., who moved to Nova Scotia 23 years ago with her husband, did her Royal Conservatory levels in piano in high school and majored in music and drama at the University of Guelph.

But she she says she learned more about singing through barbershopping and teaching private voice lessons than she did at university and notes the sound created in the barbershop chorus "knocks your socks off."

A piano and voice teacher in her home studio in Windsor Junction, Kember joined the ScotianAires in 1994 and took over as director in 2006. She also sings lead and baritone.

Merrit, who lives in Upper Tantallon, joined the ScotianAires about eight years ago after moving from Swindon, England, with her family, including daughters who were 10 and 12 at the time. 

In England, she had studied piano and clarinet at the Royal College of Music, earned a music degree and worked as an elementary teacher with a specialization in music.

cl101916scotianaires2The ScotianAires qualified for Harmony Inc.'s international convention and competition in Providence, Rhode Island, Nov. 2 to 6. Tonic!, a quartet made up of ScotianAires members, will also compete. (CHRISTIAN LAFORCE / Local Xpress)

When she moved to Halifax, Merritt thought auditioning for a choir would be a great way to meet people.

"I had never encountered the world of barbershop before. I thought of it as the Dapper Dans on Mainstreet in Disney World and I thought of it as a quartet, not a chorus so I was curious to check it out."

She was drawn in by the warmth of the women she met.

"I left my mom in the U.K. and it was like having 50 mothers and sisters. The music was interesting and I loved that the music was memorized. It wasn't a group of women with their noses in the music," she says noting she was also impressed by the performance aspects involved and the diversity of the women.

The ScotianAires strive to encourage a positive environment at their weekly rehearsals at Trinity Anglican Church in Fairview, making sure everyone feels valued, learns and improves. Before rehearsals there are classes focusing on breathing, vowel matching, vocal placement and more. The group also has workshops with guest instructors.

As director, Kember chooses music for the chorus who bring to life with their musical performance the sound she has envisioned.

This year in Providence, she'll begin training to be a judge and will practise scoring for the quartets.

Competing at the international events is expensive and the ScotianAires have a GoFundMe campaign set up for contributions to their trip.

Next year, though, they won't have to worry as the annual convention and competition will be held in Halifax.




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