Barbershop Workshop
by Harriett and Charles Feltman

We have collectively 50+ years of experience singing acappella. Charles is Assistant Director of the SF Cable Car Chapter of the "Barbershop Harmony Society" (formerly known as SPEBSQSA) and Tenor of "Top Of The Mark" quartet. Harriett is aboard member of the Mission Valley Chapter of "Sweet Adelines" and Lead of "Infusion," Silver Medalist in the most recent regional competition (from among 30 contestants)

In case you are unfamiliar with its history, Barbershop music developed in the South and Appalachia in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, where the Barber Shop in every small town was the local gathering place for men to get a shave, haircut, or bath (many folks there and then had no running water). While waiting for their turn it was common for folks to entertain themselves by singing. At this time popular songs were being written by Europeans composers coming to America, bringing 32-measure melodies moving around the circle of fifths with the tonal center in the middle, making harmonizing easier to do by ear than earlier popular "shaped note" hymns like those in "The Sacred Harp." The ear-harmony of this period also draws from the Black musical tradition, whose African harmonies melded with these European melodies to form this new style of music.

Because most every Barber Shop had a small boy doing cleanup and drawing bath water it was common for this boy to sing in harmony above the melody. If there was a man with a deep voice he would usually sing the roots and fifth of chords, and if there was a man with a good musical ear he would find the missing note in the four-note chords commonly implied by the melodic line, whether or not it was above the melody, and Voila, you had "Barber Shop Harmony" with a melody in a middle voice and three harmony parts, one above, one below, and one filling in the missing note wherever it happened to be.

In the early 20th Century many Vaudeville shows had a Barbershop Quartet but the advent of Radio and more complex melodies of the 1930s helped push recreational singing into a rapid decline. A few men who remembered the fun they had back then formed what eventually became the SPEBSQSA in 1938. Ten years later women decided to join the fun and formed the Sweet Adelines. Over the years both of these organizations have migrated away from a focus on maintaining the past and towards using our musical style as a focus for musical education. Both of these organizations still sing single-sexed for vocal range and historical reasons, but there is a growing movement towards "mixed" quartetting as well, and we would teach in the "mixed" range to allow everybody to participate - The ear training and methodology are the same for both sexes, but the written arrangements now used for more modern music are generally somewhat different, to provide for the best vocal qualities of each.

Since this would be the first experience for most participants we would be teaching mostly earlier material that can be sung strictly by ear, rather than requiring sheet music, but if we can get our respective quartets to agree to appear we could give an example of more modern songs in this style.

Feel free to visit and


SFFFF 2005: