GENEVA – On a recent evening in Geneva, the sound of women singing wafted through the screen of an open basement window.
“Stars shining bright above you. Night breezes seem to whisper ‘I love you.’ Birds singing in the sycamore trees. Dream a little dream of me,” they sang, their voices carrying sweetly in the gathering twilight.
The members of the quartet stood in Linda Berg’s basement, looking at themselves in mirrors while they performed. Maria Kolano sang lead, Linda Berg was tenor, Beth Pasek sang bass and Fran Bell’s baritone completed the four-part harmony.
Then they looked at each other and gave a critique.
“Was that a little slow?” Berg asked. “Sway when you say ‘stars.’ It’s a two-part sway.” She demonstrated. And then the “meeeeee” at the end: “You have to hold it for three beats longer.”
The Piece O Chord women’s barbershop quartet was deeply into what would be three hours of its weekly rehearsal for regional competition. This rehearsal was particularly intense because the group will be one of a dozen women’s quartets in the Harmony Inc. contest this weekend in St. Charles.
The quartet and chorus contests are open to the public, so not only will the Piece O Chord sing before a group of judges, its skills also will be on display for anyone who wants to attend. The quartets are up Friday, and the women’s barbershop choruses perform Saturday.
Not only are Piece O Chord’s members in competition among 12 quartets, they also are in competition as members of the Misty River Music Makers, a 22-member women’s chorus based in Geneva, which is one of five in the competition.
“One of the things that competition forces you to do is to work harder to become better,” said Berg, 55. “And if you are going to competition, you get coaching. And we’ve actually had coaching twice this year already. It helps you to drive to be better. If you are not doing performances or contests or anything, you kind of get lackadaisical.”
Bell, 69, of Aurora, echoed Berg’s observation.
“One of the things I enjoy about it is singing in a quartet makes you a better chorus singer,” Bell said. “Because when you sing in a quartet, you have to know your part really well because you have nobody else to lean on. You can’t hide. You have to know your notes. When you do, and you go back to your chorus, you are then that much better. … The more quartets you have, the better your chorus is.”
Kolano said she liked the added responsibility of a quartet.
“Sometimes in a chorus – even though you’d like to make it better, you are one of many. You can do your best, but the chorus is only as good as its weakest link,” Kolano said. “The quartet, there are fewer people, and the responsibility is higher on you and you can’t hide. I like that. It’s more immediate as to what you’re doing wrong because you don’t have all these other people singing the same thing. Sometimes, it’s not as apparent when you’re singing in a chorus.”
The competition calls for two a cappella songs – that is, without musical accompaniment – in barbershop style or four-part harmony. In four-part harmony, the lead carries the melody.
The tenor sings above the melody. The bass is below the melody, and the baritone sings above and below it to unite the sound. Even the quartet name reflects that.
In barbershop music, there always are four notes that make up a chord – and it takes each member of the quartet to do that, Berg said.
“Which makes each one of us ‘a piece of a chord,’ ” Berg said, explaining the quartet’s name. “It actually took us nine months to come up with it, but we love it now.”
Last year, Piece O Chord came in next to last, so its members are pushing themselves to do better this time.
Competition, they said, is a serious, often nerve-racking business.
“You have six people down there judging you in three different categories,” Pasek said. “You have to try to coordinate what you do to score the best in each of those categories.”
The categories are singing, presentation and music.
“Singing, you have to sing on tune and together,” Berg said. “And there is the presentation, how you look and how you present yourself, and you can’t sing into your chest or your foot. And there is the music category, which is the most elusive of the three … the music is how you interpret the song and how you make it come to life.”
“And make it your own,” Kolano said.
The program does not even state what songs any quartet will sing, just the name of the quartet and two blank lines for the songs for the audience to fill in.
“There’s a little bit of a mystery to it,” Berg said. “If they know what it’s supposed to be, you lose the surprise.”
If you go
What: Harmony Inc. Contest and Convention Who: Women’s quartets and choruses from Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Wisconsin in competitionWhen: Twelve quartets at 7:30 p.m. Friday and five choruses at 12:30 p.m. SaturdayWhere: Hilton Garden Inn, 4070 E. Main St., St. CharlesCost: $10 for adults; $8 for seniors and studentsWhy: Winners will advance to the next level of competition.About Harmony Inc.: Harmony Inc. is an international nonprofit and educational organization for women barbershop singers that was founded in 1959.
More information • Harmony Inc. – www.harmonyinc.org and www.area4harmonyinc.org • Misty River Music Makers – www.mistyrivermusicmakers.org; the group rehearses from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays at Montessori Academy, 595 S. River St., Batavia