Teen challenges perception that barbershoppers are just old men

Stephan Brannan has never frequented a soda shoppe, referred to the females at his high school as "gals" or set a date for his retirement, but he's found a brotherhood with those who have.

At 17 years old, he's the youngest member of the Hilton Head Island Barbershop Harmony Society by at least a couple of decades - an anomaly in a cappella.

"A lot of people think, 'Oh those barbershoppers are just a bunch of old guys,' but it's not just old people," Brannan said during a break at one of the group's recent practices at the Country Club of Hilton Head. "Anybody can sing. I don't think the age difference really matters, because a lot of these guys have the spirits of teenagers, even though they're a lot older. It's really cool."

That perspective and enthusiasm is music to the ears of members in the aging chorus, who want to attract more young men like Brannan to their music fraternity. Brannan found out about the barbershoppers through his choir director at church, who found out one of the quartets needed a tenor. The group consists mostly of men in their late 50s to early 60s, with a few outliers, but they are hoping that will soon change.

At the end of July, the Hilton Head barbershoppers are prepared to send 10 area high school boys to the annual Dixie District Harmony Explosion Camp at Clemson University for barbershop style singing classes, but Brannan has been the only student to accept a scholarship and commit to the four-day camp so far. More than 150 boys from South Carolina and surrounding states are expected to attend.

"Like every organization in this world, if you don't get youth involved it's going to die," said Dick Stacy, who has been a member of the Hilton Head chapter for about five years now. "As the guys grow up and pass on, (barbershop) will disappear if there's not any enthusiasm left behind. It will fade away. The more young people we get, the better we're going to be. We need bolstering. Every chapter does."

Stacy said he first got involved as a barbershopper in New York in 1952, when a friend from work recommended he check out one of the practices. And like most who are now longtime members, he was hooked to the music and camaraderie from the start.

"Life has demands that you can't ignore, but outside of being a good husband and a good father, I don't know anything I'd rather do than this, because of what it does to you," Stacy, who sings bass, said. "For the 2 ½ to 3 hours that you're in rehearsal, you forget every problem. You're just mellow and floating and happy. I wish I had started when I was 16. It gives you a whole life back."

Judging from the barbershop organization's national and international membership, he is not alone in that sentiment. Since its formation in Bartlesville, Okla., 90 years ago, The Barbershop Harmony Society has grown to 30,000 members in 16 districts in the U.S. and also boasts chapters in eight foreign countries. Every year during the week of July 4, the society hosts an international convention in different cities of the U.S. and Canada. Last year's convention in Indianapolis drew 47 quartets and 30 choruses to competition.

"Some people like to sing, other people like to compete, but more than anything, I think we all just like to have a lot of fun," said Dick Tyrrell, who sings bass for the Hilton Head barbershoppers. He first joined the musical man movement in Cherry Hill, N.J., almost 20 years ago. "We don't have to set up amplifiers. We don't have instruments. We can sing anywhere and will take anyone who wants to join."

While some of their performances have been on stages, a lot of their vocalizing takes place in classrooms, homes, restaurants or wherever they are called. The group has serenaded their way through the Lowcountry, helping suitors find ways to say, "I'm sorry," "I love you" and so on in song. From locksmiths and doctors to soccer referees and retirees, barbershop draws a hodgepodge of gentlemen who are simply interested in harmony - a dynamic Brannan said is hard to come by in high school.

"There never seems to be any conflict," the teenage tenor said. "Everybody seems to be pretty good friends. At my school, a lot of people goof around about music and don't care about it, but this place actually has people who really care. I just feel really accepted."

Richard Melton, who sings bass for the chorus, said it's that same feeling of "home" that draws other barbershoppers and audience members in, too.

"You never hear anybody say, 'Oh no, the barbershop quartet is here. That ruins the evening,'" he said with a laugh. "It always brings a smile, no matter who you are. We're just average guys who enjoy singing all the time."