Kim Britton raised an eyebrow when Vicky Green described the Saratoga Soundtrack Chorus, of which they are both members, as “a one-night-a-week hobby” at a recent Monday night rehearsal.
“Hobby?” she said, laughing.
Her incredulity is understandable. Although the five-year-old a cappella chorus, a member of the female barbershop organization Sweet Adelines International, practices only on Monday nights, the 43 singers in the group are committed to an intense schedule of shows and competitions year-round.
Since chartering with Sweet Adelines in 2008, the chorus has competed each year in the organization’s regional competitions — first in Region 16, the Lake Ontario Region, and now in Region 15, the Greater New York and Jersey Region — and has placed each year. In 2009, 2011 and 2012, the chorus won first place; in 2011, its score was high enough to qualify for the International Harmony Classic in Denver last November.
“When we went to Denver, that was super,” said Green, 59, a nurse and member of the chorus for the past two years. “You go up, and it’s — ‘Saratoga! Saratoga! Saratoga!’ They cheer for you. It’s really — being on the international stage, I don’t even know how to describe it.”
The group also performs year-round throughout the Capital Region and made its second appearance at Saratoga Race Course this past Wednesday as part of Fabulous Fillies Day.
The chorus is rehearsing for its first long-form show, tentatively titled “The Musical Odyssey: Barbershop Music Through the Ages,” to be performed on Oct. 26 at South Glens Falls High School.
“We’re very excited about it,” said musical director and chorus founder Nancy Faddegon. “It explores all types of music — Western music — starting with Gregorian chant, all the way up through rock ’n’ roll, all sung in four-part harmony.”
When Faddegon first had the idea to form a Sweet Adelines chorus for Saratoga Springs in 2006, there were only six or seven members on board. Faddegon is the former assistant director of the Capitaland Chorus as well as a composer and arranger — her song “Kickin’ It Up a Notch” was in the Sweet Adelines Interntional IES program in 2008. One of the chorus’ most popular numbers is another Faddegon composition, “Saratoga Medley,” which sets original lyrics about Saratoga Springs to the melody of “Camptown Races.”
“There were a group of us that felt that there was a need for a chorus in Saratoga,” Faddegon said. “The male barbershoppers [Racing City Chorus] have been here forever, but there was no women’s chorus.”
To qualify for membership in the Sweet Adelines, the chorus needed to reach 15 members representing each of the four vocal parts in barbershop singing — lead; tenor, which harmonizes above the lead; baritone, which is slightly below the lead; and bass, which covers the lowest notes. When all four parts are harmonizing, it creates a chord.
“It’s great to hear,” said Sue Pidgeon, 50, a member of the chorus for the past two and a half years. “When you sing in the quartets, you really can tell if you’re singing the right notes. You’ll know if it’s not making chords.”
Once the chorus had enough members, it still had to set up a management team. After required visits from two vocal coaches as well as visits by administrative coaches, the group was chartered in time to compete in — and win — the 2009 regional competition in the small chorus category.
There’s more to being a Sweet Adelines chorus than just singing well, however. Unlike other choirs, Sweet Adelines do not use sheet music — the vocalists must sing their parts from memory. This frees them up for the choreography, another essential part of the performances.
“It’s more of a visual plan, and obviously newer choruses will not do as complex choreography,” Faddegon said. “You get some of the choruses that have been around for 40 years, and it’s like a Broadway show. For an amateur organization, there’s an incredible amount of talent.”
In competition, the choruses are judged in four categories — sound, which is the actual vocal abilities of the group; music, or how well the two selections performed are arranged and interpreted; expression, or the storytelling element in the songs; and showmanship, which covers the choreography and costumes. The regional competitions are always in April, which means intense rehearsals occur from December all the way up to the competition date.
“So basically, you work two songs a lot for those months,” Faddegon said. “Not that you’re not singing anything else. It might not be for everybody, because it’s ‘Let’s do that phrase again; let’s do that phrase again; let’s run the whole first page.’ It’s very, very detailed to get — well, the things that are important are the accuracy of each of the singers singing their part, so that all the people that are singing in the lead section have to sound alike; they have to sing the same notes at the same time and the same words. And it’s the same for the baritones and the basses and the tenors.”
With all of these requirements, auditioning for the group is a lengthy process. Being able to read music is a plus but is not a requirement. Prospective members must pass two auditions before being voted into the chorus by the existing members. They are allowed to audition after attending three rehearsals and must pass the first audition by the sixth rehearsal; the second audition must be passed by the eighth rehearsal.
“We learn quite a bit of new music in a year,” Faddegon said. “So if you have someone who takes longer than that to learn a couple songs, then they’re going to be a frustrated member, and the rest of the chorus is going to be frustrated with them.”
The group’s members range in age from 17 to the 70s. Many had no experience with barbershop or Sweet Adelines before joining the group, including management team secretary Cheryl Springer, who has been with the chorus from the beginning.
“It’s an eye-opener, and it definitely is an educational experience, because you are taught along the way how it’s supposed to be done,” Springer said. “You don’t just give them the music and say, ‘OK, sing.’ We’re taught how to sing; we’re taught how to say the vowels. We’re taught how to enunciate. We’re taught how to breathe, correct breathing techniques.”
By the time the group qualified for the international competition in Denver, it had reached mid-sized chorus status.
“It was a very busy and sometimes frustrating time for us, because yes, then you’ve got more members,” Faddegon said. “When you start out as a group of 15, everybody knows everybody and you’re pretty tight, and the more members you get, the harder it is for everybody to know everybody really well.”
But even with increased membership, the chorus has managed to maintain its camaraderie. Both Green and Britton describe the chorus as a sisterhood.
“I had a little bit of a hard time with my audition, but everybody encouraged me,” Green said. “It’s just that way. Because it is supposed to be a hobby, and it is supposed to be fun.”
“It’s an intense hobby,” Britton added.
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or email@example.com.