On a recent Monday, “Pretty Woman” starts playing, signaling to the members of the Heart of Missouri Chorus that it’s time to begin rehearsal. With Roy Orbison crooning from a boombox, the women move to the music.
The song stops, and the women begin marching in place. They then start humming scales a cappella — in four-part harmony, as they warm up for two hours of singing.
The 28 women in the chorus, including director Marj Friedmeyer, come from Columbia, Jefferson City, Moberly, Smithton and California, Mo. The youngest member is a high school senior, and a handful of the women are grandmothers. Some have been with the group for just a few years; others closer to 30 years.
The group is more like a sisterhood than an ensemble, and, in some cases, the bonds are rooted in family. Sarah Cramer and her mother, Betty, have sung with the Heart of Missouri Chorus for three years. At 18, Sarah is about to graduate from Rock Bridge High School.
“Sometimes, it’s like I have 30 mothers all looking out for me, and for each other,” Sarah says. At 73, Jean Turner is the oldest. A member for six years, Turner has found the women in the chorus ready to lend a helping hand — literally. After two back surgeries, she says, “they’ve always been very supportive of me, especially when I’m getting up and down off the risers. Everybody’s always giving me a hand.”
At the same Monday night rehearsal, the chorus sings “We Are Family,” a song made popular by Sister Sledge. The women snap their fingers and wave their hands. They sway; they bounce.
When they finish, the director offers her thoughts.
“Were you thinking about the word sounds and the message?” Friedmeyer asks. “I saw the message, but I didn’t hear all the word sounds.”
The women erupt with laughter. They know just what she means. As the Heart of Missouri Chorus rehearses, the members focus on the nuances of the notes, and they spend 20 minutes focusing on vowels. They speak the song’s lyrics slowly and deliberately, drawing out each vowel in each word.
Take, for example, the word “day.”
“The way I would phonetically spell ‘day’ is ‘DEH-ee,’” Friedmeyer explains. The “E-H” is the first half of the vowel sound that traditionally sounds like the letter “a.”
That half is the “target vowel,” the sound they “strive to hold the word on,” Friedmeyer says. “Then we should all turn to the ‘ee’ at the same time.”
Sarah Cramer, the Rock Bridge senior, says such attention “seems like a minute little detail, but it’s one thing that separates a chorus that’s singing really good barbershop.”
Ultimately, the uniformity of each word leads to a “nice, clean, clear sound,” Friedmeyer says. And sound is critical in competitions. So is music — that is how well it’s arranged, interpreted and sung — along with expression and showmanship.
“Since we sing a cappella, everything is heard,” Friedmeyer says. “A unit sound is what they are listening for.”
In competition, Turner says, “you have to have perfect words and perfect notes.”
Their pursuit of perfection has been paying off. In April, the Heart of Missouri Chorus took top regional honors among choruses from Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Kentucky.
In 2006, they placed second in their category, that of small chorus, or fewer than 30 members; in 2005, they placed third.
Their sound, by definition, is barbershop a cappella, arranged in four parts: lead, tenor, baritone and bass. Traditionally, barbershop is sung by men. The name of the style comes from the early 1900s when men, usually in groups of four, would stand outside barbershops. Women started singing the same genre in the 1940s.
“The Hearts,” as chorus members sometimes call their chorus, hope to make their style more widely recognized. They are a member of Sweet Adelines International, a singing organization for female choruses that sing barbershop a cappella.
Family ties are in the group’s past as well as its future. Assistant director and choreographer Lisa Woolridge has been with the chorus for nearly 20 years, and she’s been singing barbershop since she was 3.
“My sister would take me to her rehearsals,” Woolridge says. “I was in my first quartet when I was 12. I grew up on it.”
Woolridge says the harmonics and vibration of certain chords used in barbershop music create the overtone: a fifth note, higher than the four notes the women sing to create it. “Everything is structured to make that fifth note, what we call ‘spin,’” she says.
Friedmeyer, who has been singing with the chorus for 28 years and directing for 20 of them, says only 11 chords can be used in barbershop a cappella to create the overtone, something for which the group strives.
“They say if you do it right, it just rings,” says member Kathy Sheridan, with her first finger spiraling upward.
At the end of every rehearsal, the women form a circle, moving back chairs in a room either at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia or at Heisinger Bluffs retirement home in Jefferson City. They join hands for a closing song.
“So take my hand, my friend,” they sing to each other. “I want to say I’m glad we laughed and loved and sang together today.”
Betty Cramer says the song “brings a tear to your eye.”
Her daughter Sarah is leaving for college in the fall, and Betty says the song reminds her that “music will always be a common thread that people share.”
It’s more than the sounds and the songs that set them apart, Woolridge says.
“We’re a smaller chorus,” she says, differentiating the Hearts from other Sweet Adeline ensembles that have more than 150 women.
“You know how in big groups of women, you have little groups within the group? That’s not us,” Woolridge says. “We’re one big group; we’re like sisters. We’re so involved in each others’ lives.”