One Month At A Time

TBT: Kanawha Kordsmen

People sometimes ask if there’s been anything I’ve stuck with. There have been a few things, including the Kanawha Kordsmen, Charleston’s barbershop chorus.

This weekend is the annual Johnny Appleseed District Convention in Columbus, Ohio. We’re headed up to sing –and this year, I’ll be going along again.

I’m looking forward to it.

If you’d told me a few years ago, I’d be spending my Monday evenings singing barbershop harmony songs, I’d have said you were nuts, but it’s been a good run with the guys. They’ve welcomed me into the fold and while I’m not some great vocalist, I contribute in my small way and it works.

At least, the shoes still fit.

Anyway, here is what preparations were like just before the contest two years ago.

More than a year ago, I stumbled into the idea of taking a month to explore a topic I didn’t know much about. One topic led to another and then another and so on.

This series has taken me some interesting places. I’ve learned what it’s like to give up meat and studied yoga. I’ve fired handguns, danced with the ballet and zip-lined off the New River Gorge Bridge.

Each month, I’m just trying to broaden my perspective a little, discover things about myself and the world around me.

This month, I’m learning to sing with the Kanawha Kordsmen, the Greater Kanawha Valley Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, in preparation for their upcoming competition at the 2017 Johnny Appleseed District Convention in Olmsted Falls, Ohio.

Time began to run out before the convention and contest in Ohio, but I felt good about the music. I still brought the lyrics with me to rehearsal, but I didn’t need them. I’d listened to the songs over and over, belted out the words in my car while driving to and from work, and, so far, nobody had so much as looked at me sideways.

This might have been because there are much worse things to listen to while on the street.

Keeping my windows rolled up might have helped, too.

The main thing was, while I wasn’t the greatest, biggest bass voice in the Kanawha Kordsmen, I also wasn’t going to make a mess of the performance in Cleveland.

I began to get a little excited about going on a road trip. I don’t really get out of Charleston much. Even Cleveland sounded kind of far away and exotic.

Meanwhile, spring had sprung. Kanawha County’s gray and brown winter had blossomed into shades of green and pastel colors. Fountains of red and purple dotted the hillside, and everywhere there were flowers.

The drugstores, I imagined, were making a killing selling allergy medicine and tissues.

At rehearsals, one or two Kordsmen were fighting sinus drainage.

Finally, co-director Steve Waggoner looked up at the ceiling and said, “I don’t know why we have a convention in the early spring and another in the middle of fall.

“In the spring, you get everything in bloom and pollen. In the fall, all the leaves are dying and it’s in the air.”

These were terrible conditions for maintaining your voice, he said.

Steve recommended hydration — lots and lots of plain water.

“Get it all out,” he said.

We needed to have our lungs, throats and sinuses as clear as possible to sing as well as we could.

With everyone (as far as I could tell) singing the words from memory, instructions during rehearsal turned toward fine tuning our performance beyond the sounds we made.

Presentation counted — hence, the matching “lobster red” jackets, as someone described them.

“Smile,” co-director Ted Rose told us. “Remember what we’re trying to communicate here.”

With “I Only Have Eyes for You,” for example, the feeling was romantic awe and wonder. Ted talked about the mood and emotion behind our songs at almost every rehearsal, things to which I’d never given much thought.

And it was something I hadn’t seen before.

I’ve written about musicians for years, talked with I don’t know how many songwriters, but nobody had ever spoken to me about the emotions behind the presentation of a song and what they were trying to convey.

Ted wanted us to channel deep feelings, remember times when we’d felt the things the song was supposed to convey and use that.

It took a little bit of time for me to get over trying to conjure memories of being poleaxed by love, but slowly I got my grasp on it.

I’d done something like it before, put on a kind of act.

For a year, I worked as a customer service representative at the world’s worst satellite television provider.

We were told the company launched its service early to get a foothold in the southern part of the country and Puerto Rico before the other companies expanded to fill the void, but it wasn’t ready. The equipment was buggy, flawed and prone to catching fire.

Add to that the company routinely under-billed, over-billed and once shut nearly every customer off because a computer mistakenly believed no one had paid for his or her television programming for a month.

The service was heavily used in Florida, Puerto Rico and Southern Texas, where it was legal, as well as Mexico, Cuba, Belize and a lot of other predominantly Spanish-speaking countries, where it specifically was not.

It was strange and difficult work. Turnover at the call center was high and we were encouraged to smile during every call, be friendly and think of the angry customers as old friends, even when they swore at us in Spanish and promised to come find us.

Nobody took it seriously. Bluefield was a long drive from Havana.

Anyway, I figured if I could spend 12 months pretending everything was just fine, I could spend a couple of minutes pretending to be completely besotted with love.

We were all told to work on our smiles, to make them as big as humanly possible. A couple of guys complained and said smiling so much made them look deranged.

To be honest, up close, they were right. It was unnerving, but we were shown that even from a moderate distance from the stage, small smiles disappear.

In the audience, nobody could tell who was smiling or not if we only gave it a half measure.

“Practice in front of a mirror if you have to,” Steve said.

Ted pushed us to pay attention to the top portion of our heads, our foreheads. He wanted us to keep our brows up and think about opening space.

“No constipation face,” he said.

It seemed like a lot to keep in mind — what we were trying to say with the song, how we were going to control our faces for the crowd and to get the best sound.

I wanted an aspirin, not that I could actually take one.

By the third rehearsal, I’d figured out I couldn’t put anything heavier than a sip of water on my stomach before singing. If I ate, I’d run out of breath a lot faster, and I also felt uncomfortable through practice.

The same thing had happened to me before the mini-triathlon and during the symphony show. I couldn’t eat. My stomach tightened up — nerves, I guess.

I wondered if that was normal.

I asked Steve about eating before a show, if anyone did that.

Steve said, “That’s all personal preference and what’s comfortable for you. Ted will drink, like, a gallon of milk before he sings. Dairy is a big no-no for lots of people, but he does it, and he’s fine.”

We were supposed to sing at 9:30 a.m. Saturday. I considered visiting the bicycle shop and loading up on GU, little packets of protein, vitamins, minerals and sugar. If I felt light-headed on the stage, I could always grab one of those, crack it open and pour it down my throat.

I decided against it. The judges wouldn’t be impressed.

During my last rehearsal with the Kanawha Kordsmen before the convention in Ohio, we ran through our two songs a couple of times. Steve and Ted made some slight adjustments, and we discussed how we would present our songs.

We needed to be ready and in character for our first song before the curtain opened. Steve would direct us, but we needed to remain in character until he released us.

“Use me as the lens to focus your attention,” Steve said.

It was OK to enjoy the applause and the experience of being there, but we needed to work as a unit.

At best, looking around could distract the judges. At worst, not focusing on the director could mean missing a signal, which would detract from the performance.

At the end, Steve and Ted said we sounded good.

The two contest songs had been worked on, picked over and performed enough. It was time to go, but just as we were about to call it a night, Steve asked if we’d do June Carter Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

It was just for fun. It was a song the Kanawha Kordsmen had been working on, but I didn’t know the words and hadn’t practiced it.

I started to leave, and got as far as the edge of the stage before I realized I had the sheet music with me. So I went back, took my place on the risers and sang as best I could — maybe it wasn’t quite as good as Johnny Cash, but it sounded pretty good to me.