More than two dozen women gather weekly to share experiences and grow. They listen intently as a pitch pipe sets the tone, reminiscent of an orchestra tuning. The wind instruments are the women's voices exhaling in a capella four-part harmony, barbershop style.
Set the image of stripes and straw skimmer hats aside. Springfield's Sound Celebration Chorus performs primped and styled - often glitzy and glamorous - in a variety of settings while serenading audiences.
The non-profit group performs both for hire and for community service.
While traditional songs such as "Sweet Georgia Brown" are part of the repertoire, barbershop chord structure can be applied to much more: show tunes, pop and even rock music. According to the group's front-line director, Martha Eiter, the chorus sings songs from all eras - from old favorites to new tunes like Miley Cyrus' "The Climb."
The singing began in 1953, when Springfield sisters Trudy Harkins and Marilyn Coe founded Sound Celebration Chorus, according to 40-year veteran chorus member Jean Smith.
"We're one of the most active choruses in the region and can perform in a variety of settings because of our size and balanced numbers of each voice part."
The chorus is dubbed a small chorus (fewer than 30 performers) by Sweet Adelines International, of which Sound Celebration Chorus is a chapter.
The worldwide women's organization advances the art form of barbershop harmony through education and performance. It includes 35 regions with some 25,000 members in 1,200 quartets and 600 choruses worldwide. They're required to sing in English.
Most Sound Celebration members are from the Springfield area, with some from Decatur, Morton, Carlinville, Lincoln and elsewhere.
The group is in Sweet Adelines Region 5, encompassing central and eastern Missouri, most of Illinois, Kentucky's western tip and eastern Iowa.
Sweet Adelines regional and international competitions give members some once-in-a-lifetime experiences and lifelong memories.
For more than 30 years, Eiter has been active in choruses and quartets, including winning regional quartet honors four times.
"When you line up the chords just right, you can have as much as six tones with just four voices. It's an incredible sound and an incredible challenge," she says.
The international organization's director certification program and ongoing educational opportunities boost Eiter's skills to ready the group for competition.
At regional competitions, choruses perform a ballad and an uptune. Four judges review the performances for music, expression, showmanship and sound.
"Sound is the most important category. It can be the breaker," Eiter says.
Sound Celebration was the region's 2009 small chorus champion, also winning top in showmanship.
This past May, the group finished second amid more competition in the small chorus category. Regional winners compete in the international event.
While regional competition is over for the year, practice and performance isn't. The group meets weekly to rehearse and encourage new members of every age to join.
It plans several upcoming events and is working toward its annual fundraiser to be held Oct. 2, which will be a murder mystery presented in song.
Aside from the opportunity to develop singing skills, members gain other benefits.
"I love the challenge, the sound, the camaraderie," Eiter says. "It's hard to get out of it. You love it and stay a lifetime."
"You gain lifetime friends," Smith adds. "I love to sing. I enjoy the harmony and working toward something and serving the community. It's a wonderful, caring group. For many of us, it's therapy. It's a constant in your life, an outlet and a hobby."
Participation in the chorus can be therapy even for therapists like Jean Follin, who joined in 1992.
"I've enjoyed it immensely. There's a lot of camaraderie, music and education. It's much like a family group. It certainly has improved my singing."
Follin's daughter, Dawn, also participates, and her husband, Carl, is in the group's male counterpart, the Land of Lincoln Barbershop Chorus.
"It's just a very good thing to do for yourself."
Story published Friday, July 2, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 4 )