Since 1985, the Masters of Harmony have been touring the world, winning competitions—and enlightening audiences with their take on barbershop-quartet and choral music. They’ve won the International Chorus Championship nine times, and their award-winning show is headed for the McCallum Theatre for a matinee on Sunday, March 19.
During a recent interview with Craig Hughes, chapter president and member of the bass section, he explained that the Masters of Harmony are a melding of Los Angeles-area chapters of the Barbershop Harmony Society.
“The Barbershop Harmony Society is a huge organization of 17 districts across every state and Canada of 700 chapters, and they’ve been around for about 85 years,” said Hughes. “There are six or seven chapters that are very successful in L.A., and members of those chapters decided to get together and put together a competitive chapter that could win international contests every year. They did that 38 years ago, in 1985. Since then, we have won nine international competitions. We have grown to 140 active members, and we have a performing chorus now of about 60 to 70 members. It was a group of like-minded men who wanted to sing at a high level.”
Winning an International Chorus Championship, as you may expect, is not easy.
“There’s a qualification process where you win at a division level, and then a district level,” Hughes said. “We have the far western district, which is made up of 70 chapters across three states, and we get together and compete to get a representative or a couple of qualifying representatives to go to international. You then go to the international competition; they’ve been held all over the United States and Canada. You compete with 30 to 50 other choruses, singing in front of a panel of judges and a large audience, and at the end, they award a championship. After you win, you have to sit out for two years before you can compete again. In our 30 years, we’ve won nine times.”
These various wins have come at a time when the nature of the competition—and the competitors themselves—have been changing.
“A major change that’s been taking place in the last six, seven years, is we now allow all genders to be members singing in our choruses,” Hughes said. “We have mixed choruses; we have male choruses; we have female choruses. Masters of Harmony happens to be a male chorus, but we’re competing against everybody.”
Hughes said he feels that he was always meant to sing.
“I grew up in the Midwest, in Iowa, and I sang all the way through my elementary and high school,” shared Hughes. “I went to West Point and sang in the West Point Glee Club—and then left and didn’t sing for 20 years. A friend introduced me to barbershop, and I’ve been doing that for more than 20 years. I was kind of born into it, because I’m from Iowa, and my dad was a friend of Meredith Wilson, who is the guy who wrote The Music Man, the Broadway play. I now sing in three choruses; I sing in a quartet; and I’ve been in a number of volunteer positions in the barbershop world.”
Joining Masters of Harmony wasn’t even a question. “They’re the best in the world,” he said. The commute can be challenging, however, as members travel from all over Southern California to practice.
“I live in Chula Vista, which is down on the Mexican border, so it’s quite a commute,” Hughes said. “There’s a group of guys from San Diego, and a group of guys from the Palm Springs area. There are carpools, and it’s a three-hour drive up for a three-hour rehearsal, and then a two-hour drive home, so it is quite a commitment—but you’re traveling with all your friends. You leave in the middle of the afternoon to get back at 1 in the morning, but it’s well worth it.”
Hughes said people who come to see their show will enjoy a broad spectrum of music.
“Audiences will hear American classics, gospel, some patriotic and some contemporary music,” he said. “This year, we’re featuring a set which was our last contest piece, which is a song from Wicked that is mixed with a song from the TV show Smash. We sing all different kinds of songs. We sing a cappella without accompaniment, and we don’t hold music; everything’s memorized. We have some choreography and movement with a number of our songs, and we will feature two quartets, which is the basis of barbershop. One is called Masterpiece; it’s an international champion quartet that came out of our chapter, and the other one is Seventh Variety, a college quartet that sings with us. Our ages range from 20 to 80, and it’s pretty well spread across, so you’ll see all types of guys up there singing.”
The Masters of Harmony has released eight albums—some live, and some recorded in a studio. I mentioned that recording 100 men singing at the same time sounds like a logistical nightmare.
“We’ve recorded albums ever since we started, and it’s an interesting process, because we’ve recorded in studios, and our last few recordings have been in a large church in Newport Beach,” Hughes said. “We set up all the mics, and what you hear on the recording is an edited performance. We don’t multitrack; we don’t record each separately. They’re not all one take. If you hear a recording from a show or performance, that will be one take, but other than that, it’s kind of a mix and match, but it’s not manipulated; it’s what we sound like. As you can imagine, getting sometimes up to 100 guys singing and staying still and not making things squeak and breathing at the right time—it’s quite a process, but it’s very fulfilling for the end result. We have been working on a recording for a couple of years that COVID set us back on.”
Going forward, the Masters of Harmony intend to continue pushing the boundaries of what a barbershop group can be.
“We’re lucky to have a lot of fans around the world, but we’re trying to reach out to a larger audience,” Hughes said. “Our vision now is to kind of break out of that barbershop bubble and have the world know who we are.”
The Masters of Harmony will perform at 3 p.m., Sunday, March 19, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $15 to $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com. For more on Masters of Harmony, visit mastersofharmony.org.