Donna St. Germain doesn’t look like what you may expect of a singer in a barbershop quartet.
She’s a woman, for one thing. And on a rainy Wednesday night, when she’s preparing to rehearse with an all-female acapella chorus, the 55-year-old Cloverdale resident is wearing a brilliant pink shirt instead of a striped vest. Instead of a striped hat, her hair frizzes gently around her ears and she’s holding a large purse instead of a jaunty cane.
But St. Germain has been a tenor in a competitive, all-female barbershop quartet for 20 years.
She first got the barbershop bug when she was growing up in Langley. There was a pizza shop on Fraser Highway where the Langley men’s chorus would go for a bite to eat after their rehearsals.
“Every now and then, my sister and I would go down with our parents for late night pizza, or just to sit and hear them. And their quartets would get up and sing, their chorus would get up and sing,” she said. “And I just loved the acapella. I was kind of always drawn to it.”
A singer throughout childhood, St. Germain was involved in school choirs, musical theatres and vocal jazz groups. It wasn’t until her 30s that she got a chance to sing the acapella music she had loved as a kid.
“I went in the first night and I was hooked. Absolutely hooked,” she said about joining Westcoast Harmony. “And I haven’t looked back.”
Westcoast Harmony is an all-women acapella chorus that operates under Sweet Adelines International, a global organization that focuses on female barbershop-style music. Within the chorus, some members have banded together to create barbershop quartets that also fall under Sweet Adelines’ oversight. St. Germain’s Uptown Suite! is one of many, including VITA, Brava!, Frenzy, Yes’m and the relatively new Simmer!.
Cloverdale’s Linda Wilson, 62, is Simmer!’s baritone. Last year was her first time singing in a barbershop quartet, although she had been involved with the chorus for years.
“It looked like fun, and it’s another step to improve everything we do in the chorus,” said Wilson. “Your voice, your confidence, just that challenge of trying to get four women’s voice to sing in the same sound.”
“It’s another risk,” she added. “I guess I’m a risk taker.”
Both St. Germain and Wilson agree — singing in a barbershop quartet is fun. But it’s a lot of work if you want to succeed under Sweet Adelines’ rules.
Every year, different areas around the world hold competitions for Sweet Adelines’ barbershop groups. Quartets and choruses compete to be the top singers in their region, and then go on to try their talent on the international stage.
Last year, Uptown Suite! managed to get a wild card into the international competition, held in Las Vegas, after coming in second during the regional competition.
“It’s huge,” St. Germain said about the competition. “It’s somewhat intimidating, because … you see [a lot of the singers] go through the ranks. For so many years you see them competing, whether it’s the same foursome or whether they’ve split apart or gone with other pairs or other singles.”
The elite of the elite, the quartets who win during the international competition, become Queens of Harmony.
“That crown is the most prestigious prize,” Wilson said, about the crowns given to Queens of Harmony.
“That’s what everyone’s going for,” St. Germain added.
That’s what St. Germain and the fellow members of Uptown Suite! will be going for this year, when they compete in Sweet Adeline’s regional competition at the Pattison Theatre from May 3-5.
“Well the hope is always there, because that’s what everybody strives for,” she said. “Many strive for it, and many many many never make it that far.”
Wilson hopes to someday get the crown as well, but that’s not Simmer!’s focus right now.
“We’re not even thinking that far,” she said.
“Our main purpose was not the competition. It was actually to see if we could blend our sound, if we could sing together, if we could have a pleasing result, and have fun.
“Because to me, this is extra. Every Wednesday night, running here after work. It’s gotta be good to be doing the extra,” she continued. “If quartetting is another practice time, then it’s got to be rewarding. And we want to laugh.”