These traveling music men, James Darrah, Steven Andrews, Nathan Lahr and Michael Stallings, contribute to a University of La Verne quartet musical tradition that is more than a century old.
“Ah, Ah, Ah . . . Ah?” It is 8:30 a.m., and four men, fighting exhaustion from late night studying, rehearsals and social gatherings, crowd around a pitch pipe in the hallowed spaces of Founders Auditorium. With determination and their best early-morning voices, they try to build a chord that rings clearly with the sounds of barbershop. Meet the La Verne Quartet.
The first evidence of quartets at The University of La Verne is found in 1904 when a recital of Elocution and Music was presented by the college’s mixed chorus and quartet under the direction of Benjamin S. Haugh. Through the rise and fall of various choral directors at the college, the quartets eventually faded away, remaining a memory only to their fans and the mark they left in the college’s archives. This all changed when Nathan Lahr had an idea to bring it back.
Lahr, a senior double major in English and music, found the joy of barbershop singing not in La Verne, but in his hometown of Santa Maria where he joined his father’s barbershop group in summer 2004. Returning to La Verne for his senior year, he discovered the college’s lost history of quartets. “The timing was perfect,” Lahr says. “I was looking for a way to present my senior music recital, and I thought it would be great to explore this newfound medium and re-establish a tradition of barbershop singing.” Dr. Scott Farthing, Lahr’s music adviser and Music Department chair, gave him his full support. “I thought it was a fabulous idea,” Farthing says. “The school is lacking in so many traditions, and this is one that ought to be kept alive. So many great people have come through the quartets at La Verne, and Nathan is the perfect person to get it going again.”
The roots of quartet singing are almost as ancient as the University itself. In the early 1900s, quartets at Lordsburg College began singing together for their love of music and a small “love offering.” A century later, these four men at ULV have resurrected this music-making passion with a new direction, a rediscovered love and a fresh approach to barbershop music. Barbershop music is classified by its close harmonies that form chords on almost every note. Lyrics are generally playful, often telling stories of love and friendship and always featuring elements of exaggerated sentiment.
“We sang mostly classical, semi-classical and sacred songs,” says Bob Walker, class of ‘34 and member of the former quartet Harmony Four. “I guess barbershop singing wasn’t considered ‘classical’ enough. We felt we were a little more sophisticated than barbershop.”
In addition to singing sacred and spiritual pieces, Walker occasionally brought his violin along to perform duets with a female accompanist. He recalls “Kentucky Babe” as being one of his favorite pieces. “It’s a lullaby sung to a young child and was always a real favorite,” Walker says. A sacred song that sticks out in his mind is “Glorious Things to Thee,” which is a hymn that had been arranged for a quartet. “My Little Red School House” was a comedic piece about children and teachers in old-fashioned schoolhouses.
Throughout various periods in the college’s history, the choral groups were either good or not so good, depending on the size of the Music Department and who was directing the choir, but the quartets remained pretty consistent. “Other schools like the Claremont Colleges were known for their great choirs, but La Verne had a strong reputation for the quartets,” Walker says. “Everyone knew the La Verne quartets.” This tradition remained strong throughout the ‘20s and until the break of World War II.
“During the war years there weren’t too many,” recalls Lucille Keeler, class of ‘45 music major. “The war would have taken them all—except for the conscientious objectors.” Conscientious objectors included men who would have avoided bearing arms because of their religious beliefs against war. Many Brethren chose to be conscientious objectors in their efforts to be true pacifists.
One quartet did remain strong during the early years of world-wide turmoil. The Collegiairs was comprised of Dick Landis, Darl Bowers, Bernell Gregory and Don Sperline. Landis, class of ‘42, fondly recalls his years singing and traveling with the quartet. “I’d say we were a pretty well known quartet,” Landis reminisces. “I mainly studied education and later became interested in business, but music was definitely a big part of my college experience.”
The mid-’40s brought somewhat of a gap in quartet singing until Gerry Pence, class of ‘49, sought to bring back this treasured art with the help of Elias Brightbill, the chapel choir director. In the fall of 1947, Pence, along with Sherlo Shively, Dale Ott and Stan Sutphin—all friends from choir—formed The Melodiairs.
The male quartet strived to be as good as the famous quartets of La Verne’s past like The Collegiairs. The men practiced three to four times a week and performed as often as they could for La Verne College events, Church of the Brethren gatherings, YMCAs, service clubs, schools and radio audiences. Their travels took them up the coast to Oregon and across the United States to Michigan. The Melodiairs also seized the opportunity to record some of their music and in 1951 put out an album for their fans. “It was great to know that these other guys liked to sing as much as I did,” Pence says. “We did it for the joy of singing.”
This joy kept the quartets in the habit of good singing. In the early 1930s, the nation was at the bottom of the depression and hardly a soul had money for an education or, much less, entertainment. The quartets did not perform for money; there was no money to earn. Singing “a capella” music (without instruments) was free, and the quartets took advantage of every opportunity to spread this art. “Oh, we didn’t do it for pay,” Walker chuckles. “Most of the time the only pay we got was an occasional meal, but it was a great service to the College and Church. That was the main point.”
Landis agrees that service has always been a strong value at the University of La Verne. “You always come out ahead when you spend time helping other people,” he says. “Music is an important part of our culture and traditions. It also helps people socially and adds a little luster to events and meetings that can be dry with business.”
Bob Walker remembers one of his favorite performances at the Pomona Presbyterian Church. “Dr. Lewis Evans, who later became a very well known minister, led the service,” he recalls. “We felt honored because the church was larger and felt more prestigious than most of the places we were used to. Church of the Brethren churches at the time were rather small, except the one here in La Verne.”
In addition to fulfilling a Brethren tradition of service, the quartets’ music was a way of bringing the students together. “They really enriched the campus by developing a sense of community,” says Keeler, who had a graduating class of only 10. “College life seemed to center around our musical performances.”
Quartets grew to be a great asset to the college, making their presence known to local and distant communities. “You can’t believe how many students ended up here because of quartets,” Marlin Heckman, ULV archivist says. “They were really out there for the college.”
Some students arrived at the college wanting to join one of La Verne’s famous quartets. Twins Ellis and Elmo Holl learned of the college while watching a quartet perform in their Oregon hometown. After enrolling in the college, the tenors joined Harmony Four with baritone Walker and Charles Snell, a Victorville resident who sang bass.
Public relations, while a valuable asset to the college, was not the primary goal of quartet singing. “It was a really cool thing to be in a quartet. Our presence was well known on campus because of all our performances,” Pence says. “Overall, I’d say that we really just loved doing it.”
This attitude toward the music remains strong. “The sounds are different in Barbershop singing,” Steven Andrews, La Verne Quartet tenor, says. “It sounds old fashioned in a clean way that we don’t have in this world anymore.”
The sound is amazing, but is never achieved without much hard work. “It’s been really hard to put together because the tuning has to be perfect,” James Darrah, junior La Verne Quartet bass, explains. “There are mornings when our tuning is pretty good, and there are days when I just want to pull out my hair.”
All the men have hectic schedules, academically and socially. Darrah, a junior, is a double major in theater and music. In addition to practicing for the quartet, he has been involved in three major theatrical productions this year. Andrews, also a junior, juggles his double major in computer science and music with two weekend jobs. Michael Stallings is a busy senior double majoring in music and international business and language. New to barbershop music, he enjoys applying his current knowledge of music to this tradition and adds a playful edge to every song. “It’s like four soloists singing, but we’re not divas or anything like that,” Stallings says. “But at the same time, any note that’s wrong is really apparent, so there’s less room for error. It’s also different because everyone is in his natural range. There’s a lot of voice crossing, which you don’t find as much in choral music.”
The four men work hard to achieve the perfect barbershop chords that once sounded in the same Founders Auditorium that housed some of the first quartets. “It’s difficult,” Darrah admits, “but when it all comes together, it’s the coolest feeling in the world.” There are other incentives to achieving the perfect barbershop chord. Nathan’s Happy Dance is nothing to pass up. “There are just so many different ways a barbershop chord can go wrong,” Lahr explains. “When we get it right, it really means that, against all odds, we created a chord.”
Their enthusiasm shows in the fun they have with the music. All four men use their theatrical experience to make the songs come to life. Lahr organizes the group by arranging music, gathering the men for practices and putting each member’s parts into a music software program, Sibelius. That’s right; he uses the computer to help the group learn the music. This is probably the biggest difference in today’s barbershop quartets. With Sibelius, Lahr can give the men practice CDs or e-mail them digital files of their parts—alone or together.
Lahr uses this same method to help his second ensemble, “Inconspicutones,” learn music. This a capella pop ensemble consists of 10 men who practice about twice a week and focus on contemporary songs. They use their voices to imitate the instruments and sound effects they hear on recordings. Some of their current repertoire include the Jackson 5’s “I Want you Back,” Coldplay’s “Yellow,” and “Low Rider,” by War. “It’s so cool to make a song sound like the radio, but it’s all human voices,” Andrews, a member of both the La Verne Quartet and Inconspicutones says. “It’s a totally different experience than Barbershop.”
Although the types of ensembles will continue to change, the main goal of barbershop and all a capella singing remains intact. “You develop a bond between individuals,” Walker says. “It’s a little different from a choir. With a quartet, it’s more intimate and personal. The lasting friendships you develop in a singing group will last for years.”