Pittsburgh's all voice barbershop chorus Vocal Confluence melds tradition, inclusivity, and modern edge | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh has a thriving barbershop chorus that's shirking straw hat stereotypes in favor of inclusivity

click to enlarge Pittsburgh has a thriving barbershop chorus that's shirking straw hat stereotypes in favor of inclusivity
Photo: Kimmie Durik
Vocal Confluence performing their 2023 summer show, “Marvelous Night for a Moondance.”
The theme of Vocal Confluence’s programming this year is resilience. That’s not merely good fodder for a choral performance, says artistic director Brandon Rauch, but deeply felt by the group, which is emerging from a period of “growth and organizational change.”

“[It’s] been a through-line of our entire organization,” Rauch, who joined in 2015, tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “Building community, supporting one another, and just showing the love.”

Vocal Confluence is Pittsburgh’s only all voice barbershop a cappella chorus. A cappella refers to singing without accompaniment by instruments, while “all voice” means that any person singing any voice part can be included. Founded in 1997 as the Steel City Harmonizers, Vocal Confluence was originally a men’s-only chorus, piloting a second mixed-gender chorus in 2019 under Rauch’s direction, before consolidating permanently as a single all voice group in January 2022.

Add these descriptors to the chorus’s most essential component — Vocal Confluence performs barbershop music. Considered a style of arranging music, rather than a musical genre or era, barbershop is “a very big concept,” says Rauch, typically defined by a close, four-part harmony that emphasizes specific voice ranges. Notably, the melody is carried by a high tenor, the second highest voice part (which, to my untrained ear at least, produces a distinct ringing overtone). This contrasts most Western classical music where the melody is heard in the soprano line, the highest voice part.

For the uninitiated, barbershop likely conjures images of men in straw hats and striped jackets a la The Music Man, the group’s membership tells City Paper, and most barbershop choruses remain men's-only groups.

“[It’s] singing at Grandpap’s or hiring out for Valentine's Day or a joke on The Simpsons,” says Tim Farrell, who sings in Vocal Confluence with his wife and serves as a board member at large. “[But] it’s not just old white guys singing in the corner anymore. It’s not that same-old old music. There’s such an incredible future that is happening now… [that] you’ll hear in our show.”

Vocal Confluence presents their summer show, “I Wanna See You Be Brave,” on Sat., June 15 and Sun., June 16 at First Presbyterian Church of Edgewood. Adult tickets can be purchased online for $20, children and students for $10, and remaining tickets will be made available as a “pay what you can” option at the door.

At Vocal Confluence’s weekly rehearsal, in addition to some older standards, rock and pop hits flow freely, including Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.” Farrell’s favorite is A-ha’s “Take On Me,” the barbershop arrangement of which, adapted from MTV Unplugged, “take[s] it from pop-y to a more longing ballad,” he says. “It’s one of the prettiest ballads that I’ve heard barbershop-wise.”

Another two-song set the group is practicing includes Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" and "How Far I'll Go," originally a power ballad from Disney's Moana. The closer before the rehearsal's break is the song containing the upcoming show’s title, Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” released in 2013 and covered on Glee.

Since changing their name to Vocal Confluence — the decision to tie in Pittsburgh's rivers was intentional and enthusiastic, says Rauch — and allowing all voice parts, the group has seen their membership more than double.
click to enlarge Pittsburgh has a thriving barbershop chorus that's shirking straw hat stereotypes in favor of inclusivity
Photo: Megan Evangeliste
Vocal Confluence, April 2023.
Members also credit social media efforts by VP of Marketing and Public Relations, Marla Crawford, also the tenor section leader (the phrase "secret weapon" was uttered multiple times). Crawford herself had waited for the chorus to open up, previously watching her husband, assistant director Joshua Gongaware, sing with the Steel City Harmonizers and participating “behind the scenes.”

“I joined as soon as we had a mixed ensemble,” she tells CP. “And then the rest is history.”

Today’s chorus of 51 singers skews noticeably younger than others in the region. Membership ranges from 21 to 75 years old, with Rauch putting the average age at 38. From the church pews, I spot singers (not in full show dress for rehearsal) wearing Pitt, Donald Duck, and Jimi Hendrix t-shirts, in addition to some of Vocal Confluence’s own merch, which features the traditional barber’s pole with rainbow stripes.

While not explicitly an LGBTQ chorus, Rauch says, Vocal Confluence marched in this year’s Pittsburgh Pride Parade, emphasizing the group's ethos that “we create that community of welcoming, nurturing, and embracing people for who they truly are.” Rauch identifies as nonbinary, and the organization currently includes nonbinary and LGBTQ members.

“If you can sing, there’s a space for you,” Rauch says.

In addition to expanding membership and fostering inclusivity, the pivot to an all voice chorus also improved the quality of Vocal Confluence’s performance (earning them several official "Most Improved Chorus" designations).
click to enlarge Pittsburgh has a thriving barbershop chorus that's shirking straw hat stereotypes in favor of inclusivity
Photo: Kimmie Durik
Vocal Confluence opening for Loverboy and Foreigner, The Pavilion at Starlake, July 2023.
Last July, the group opened for rock band Foreigner at The Pavilion at Star Lake. Twenty-one Vocal Confluence members performed for an audience of 20,000, most of whom did "not go to a Foreigner concert expecting a barbershop chorus to open,” Rauch laughs. “But regardless, the reception by the band [and] how much they welcomed us and congratulated us on our performance” made it “an incredible experience.”

For the first time ever, Vocal Confluence is also internationally competitive, qualifying for the Barbershop Harmony Society’s (BHS) 2024 International Chorus Contest in Cleveland this July. BHS is a nonprofit founded in 1938 to help preserve barbershop, and Vocal Confluence serves as the organization's Pittsburgh Metro chapter. BHS did not allow non-male members to join until 2018, following a sweeping shift in organizational strategy called "Everyone in Harmony.”

The changes Vocal Confluence has undergone coincide with these larger changes happening across barbershop, Rauch says. They were recently asked to spearhead a BHS initiative to update the third Barberpole Cat Songbook, which establishes 12 standard songs (“polecats”) sung by all barbershoppers. Though BHS identifies barbershop as uniquely American style that finds its roots in African-American tradition, previous songbooks contained blatantly racist songs, some glorifying the Antebellum South. Other standards were sexist or misogynistic, says Rauch.

“That is a dark piece of the Society's history,” they tell CP. “So looking beyond … when we look at the broader society, how can we make this music accessible to everyone? It’s a really cool project and a huge undertaking.”

Dana Gipe, tenor assistant section leader, has been "singing [his] entire life" and says his story is "pretty typical [for] a lot of barbershoppers, because my grandfather [is] a barbershopper." Gipe was unaware of barbershop's history until attending a week-long music conference in New Orleans (hosted by BHS) in 2022. Now, he and his grandfather — who still sings and serves as president of a men's-only barbershop chorus in Jamestown, N.Y. — talk about how much has changed.

"I don't think he's missed one of our shows yet," Gipe, who joined Vocal Confluence in 2021, says.

Of the recent period of evolution, which was "one of the drivers" for this year's performances, Rauch tells CP, "T
hat all came about as we were looking to really solidify who Vocal Confluence is."

"The vision that we bring [is] making sure that everyone feels valued as a human and they have a space where they belong," Rauch says. "Because that's something that in this world is missing, in so many places, and the arts is absolutely somewhere where everyone should feel like they can be."
Vocal Confluence presents “I Wanna See You Be Brave,” Sat., June 15, 6-8 p.m., and Sun., June 16, 3-5 p.m., First Presbyterian Church of Edgewood, 120 E Swissvale Ave., Edgewood. Adult tickets $20, children and students $10, remaining tickets “pay what you can” at the door. vocalconfluence.org

Living Dead Weekend at the Monroeville Mall
18 images