I don’t think Sylvy Keenan would like to teach the whole world to sing but in the Eastern Algarve she is very happy teaching a small group of people to sing in close harmony. Sylvy gets a buzz from ringing chords and hearing the overtones. It gives a fantastic feeling which is addictive, she says.
Although Sylvy´s family is musical, she herself had no formal training in music. Like many of us, she used to sing when she was alone for example in the bath or when she was vacuuming. It was not enough for her and looking through the local clubs and associations in the library in her home town of Amersham she came across a Barbershop Chorus.
Thinking she couldn’t sing very well because she struggled to hit high notes, she was told at the audition, that’s because you are a lovely Bass my dear and that single comment was enough to give her belief in her own voice and a new direction in her life.
Sylvy´s career was in the ambulance service and when she and her husband were made redundant they travelled through Spain and France before deciding to settle in Portugal. France was too cold and Spain too noisy but Portugal was obviously just right as well as being cheaper. Because Sylvy missed her involvement in group singing, she found out about the Choir based at the Museu do Trajo in São Brás. There she met a lady who introduced her to four women who were looking for a new choir leader. And so Bella A Cappella was born in January 2008.
A cappella means unaccompanied and Barbershop singing is characterised by consonant four-part chords where each of the four parts has its own role. Generally the lead sings the melody, the tenor harmonises above the melody, the bass sings the lowest harmonising tones and the baritone completes the chord, usually below the lead. The defining characteristic of Barbershop singing is the ringing chord which is sometimes known as the fifth voice, or the overtone. It is this sound which Sylvy (and many other singers) find so addictive. The physics and psychophysics of the phenomenon are well documented and it often causes tingles up the spine and induces rapture in the listener. A 1910 song called Play that Barbershop Chord contains the lines
´Cause Mister when you start that minor part
I feel your fingers slipping and a grasping at my heart,
Oh Lord play that Barber shop chord!
Barbershop singing originated in the USA. Men waiting in a queue outside the barber´s shop would sing together, making harmony by ear rather than reading sheet music. Since those days barbershop has grown into a huge and widespread hobby and many groups achieve a very high standard. The image of four men in straw boaters and waistcoats is way out of date. Nowadays there are also ladies’ and youth choruses, many of whom compete internationally. From the 1930s, the Barbershop Harmony Society (as it is now called) has worked hard to keep the art alive and today there are possibly more than 80,000 people singing Barbershop style.
There are 12 - 14 women (and Ralph) who participate in Bella A Cappella. From the original choir, Sylvy created in 2007 a quartet called Cleftomania in which she sings lead, Ralph sings bass, Mary Legg sings baritone and Tricia Nascimento sings tenor. Bella A Cappella and Cleftomania are members of the Spanish Association of Barbershop Singers (SABS), and both the chorus and quartet have attended conventions in Spain. At this year’s convention Cleftomania came fourth in the Quartet Competition and the chorus, Bella A Cappella won the Silver Medal in the Chorus Competition.
Cleftomania performs mostly in the Eastern Algarve including last year a performance in the Ermida de Santa Ana in Tavira as part of the programme of Tavira Ilimitada, the movement against Racism and Xenophobia. This year the quartet are singing further afield with performances at the Quinta do Lago Golf club on St George’s day and the Lagoa Auditorium on 20th June.
Sylvy is a hard taskmaster. Many of her chorus was unsure of what they could achieve and she has had to work hard with them, not only to get accuracy in the notes to make the harmonies correct but also precise diction. Because the groups are multinational working in the English language, there is much to think about.
While the vocal harmonies are exciting, the social and personal outcomes of working together on this kind of music are life changing. Her singers develop more self-confidence and self-esteem; their sensitivity to the efforts of others has grown; their commitment to rehearsal sessions is remarkable and their sense of team effort and protectiveness as they practice together brings feelings of joy as they achieve beautiful harmony in all respects.
Members of the group come from Holland, Germany, Ireland and England and they meet every Tuesday (except during the 2nd week of July until the first week of September) from 19h00 to 21h00 in the Olive Lagar in Moncarapacho.
Sylvy welcomes new singers. If you want to know, more visit her website: www.bellaacappella.net or contact her on 914 848 108 or firstname.lastname@example.org
If you want to listen to the quartet, look up ‘Cleftomania’ on You Tube!