Area singers find camaraderie in barbershop chorus

Published 1:27 pm Thursday, February 23, 2017

They come from all walks of life: engineers, teachers, doctors, businessmen.

They come from throughout the area: Berrien Springs, LaPorte, Edwardsburg, Coloma.

Many of them are retired, while others continue to work a 9-to-5 day job.

However, once a week, this eclectic group of men gathers within the unassuming basement of Niles’ Grace United Methodist Church, where they allow the other side of their lives to take over.

After spending a few minutes catching up with one another, the 20 or so men take their places on the risers on the back wall and begin warming up their voices. Within a few minutes, the familiar a cappella harmony of the barbershop style of music fills the air.

This once ordinary group of men from disparate backgrounds all lend their voices to create the catchy, upbeat tunes synonymous with the time-honored tradition of singing.

For the past 18 years, this common passion for the power of vocal melody — as well as the strong bonds of friendship it has forged — have kept the members of the Lighthouse Chorus at the top of their game.

Founded in 1999, the Lighthouse Chorus is the largest Barbershop group in Michiana, comprised of amateur and professional singers from throughout the area. The group is led by Director Gene Hanover, of Bridgman, one of the founders of the barbershop chorus.

“Southwest Michigan did not really have a barbershop chorus at the time, so we created one ourselves,” Hanover said. “We wanted to form a group with men who wanted to sing, and learn how to sing well.”

The barbershop style of music is a distinctly American style, with roots going back as far back as the 1880s, though the style most closely associated with the term did pick up steam until the 1940s.

Vocals are separated into four cords: the lead, who sings the melody; the tenor, who harmonizes above it; the bass, who sings the lowest notes; and the baritone, who completes the harmony. Although Barbershop style is most closely associated with quartets — made up of four vocalists each singing one of the chords — larger groups such as Lighthouse are known as a chorus, which are similar to choirs, only they stick to music in the barbershop genre.

Like many in the group, Hanover was a veteran barbershopper before he helped form the choir, having been in and out of quartets and other groups since 1974, he said.

A member of his high school chorus who once toured Europe with a group of fellow singers, Hanover discovered the joys of barbershopping almost by accident while at his job many years ago, he said.

“A guy at the factory I was working at heard me singing one day, and came over and asked me what I had going on Tuesday at 7 p.m.,” Hanover said. “I told him I was free that night. A few days later I was part of the group.”

Prior to forming Lighthouse, Hanover sang with different quartets and choruses across Michigan and Indiana. In 1983, he received his first opportunity to stand at the front of the group and direct, he said.

“It is great,” Hanover said. “If the group sounds good, it is your fault. If they sound bad, it is still your fault.”

He has served as the leader of the Lighthouse since its formation, leading the group as they performed at barbershop competitions across the region, including the world-renowned Buckeye Invitational in Columbus, Ohio. The chorus also produced an album in 2004, entitled “Let Freedom Ring,” and hopes to produce another CD in the coming months.

In recent years, though, the group has focused more on entertaining audiences close to home. In addition to playing at different churches, retirement homes, workplaces and other venues (as well as delivering singing telegrams around Valentine’s Day) the group also organizes several fundraisers each year for area food pantries, performing concerts where the proceeds go toward helping to feed families in need.

A former singing instructor with Southwestern Michigan College, Hanover gives  back to the chorus itself, sharing his knowledge of singing every week during rehearsals.

While many of the chorus members are retirees, Hanover still maintains his career managing the Dollar General in Hartford, though it is his night job that continues to define him, he said.

“Some of us have jobs, but those are just to pay the bills,” he said. “They do not make us who we are. Our passion is what does.”

Many of the singers in the group are like Hanover, having performed barbershop for decades before joining with Lighthouse.

One of those men is retried LaPorte educator Jay Wort, who has been a member of the group since its formation, having known Hanover before starting Lighthouse, he said.

Wort, a former teacher and principal, has been singing all his life, after joining first joined a barbershop group in 1981.

“I sang to my wife in a quartet at our wedding,” Wort said. “We sang at my daughter’s wedding, too.”

Wort has sung in multiple chords since joining, including lead, baritone and bass, which he performs these days, he said.

Other performers, such as Berrien Springs’ Bill Ropp, received their first taste of the classic musical style after joining Lighthouse.

Ropp, a retired engineer, has sung lead with the group since 2008. He was inspired to join the chorus after listening to them perform at Lakeshore High School in Stevensville, he said.

“As soon I as heard the guys perform, I thought to myself, ‘yeah, this is a group I want to join,’” Ropp said.

His membership marked the first time since his days as a member of his college’s choir 45 years earlier that he sang on a regular basis.

While he has gotten plenty of practice in barbershop over the last nine years, Ropp still finds he has a lot to learn when it comes to mastering the art form. Although he enjoys performing, he finds the group’s weekly rehearsals to be the most gratifying part of the choir, as it gives him a chance to improve his vocals and learn new music in the process.

He has also formed plenty of new friendships in the process, he said.

“The group gels together pretty well,” Ropp said. “There is usually a lot of banter going around the room during practice. The guys do not let you get away with much.”

The group regularly meets outside of rehearsal as well, getting together with their spouses for dinner, Ropp said.

The sense of camaraderie is what keeps longtime members like Wort going as well.

“Pretty much everyone loves each other here,” Wort said. “It is what keeps us coming back.”

People interested in joining Lighthouse Chorus can find out more by calling the group’s membership chair, Tom Sackett, at (269) 463-3778, or president Era Snyder, at (269) 463-3226.

“You do not have to be a professional to sing with us,” Hanover said. “You can just be a normal person. You can just come in and we will put you to work.”