Barbershop quartets and choruses often conjure up an image of men in pinstripe vests on a small-town street corner.
However, an entirely different portrayal of the barbershop sound occurred last month as hundreds of all-women chorus groups competed in the Sweet Adelines International (SAI) Chorus Competition.
Since 1945, the SAI has elevated women singers worldwide through education, performance and competition in barbershop harmony and a cappella music. Last month’s competition was a reflection of just that, drawing over 600 SAI chapters from around the world to Louisville, Kentucky to compete.
For Solano County residents Zoe Brown, Michelle Hugo, Connie Ludwig, Ellie Nokes and Kitty West, competing in the international contest was a true small-town to world stage story. As the only Solano members in the nearest SAI chapter, Diablo Vista Chorus (DVC) in Walnut Creek, the five singers already had the distinction of representing their hometowns of Fairfield, Rio Vista and Vallejo.
That distinction only increased when DVC qualified for the international competition for the first time this year. When the chorus took the international stage in Louisville, those three Solano communities were represented alongside cities from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Sweden.
“I’m thrilled to be a member of Diablo Vista Chorus,” Vallejo member Michelle Hugo said. “I feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself.” Hugo said weekly rehearsals and ultimately the performances allow her to share the joy of music while also offering her a chance to step out of her day-to-day life.
Competing in the semi-finalist round with “I Got Rhythm,” the 76 voices of DVC belted out the lyrics, “I got rhythm, I got music,” which certainly proved to be true. They followed their energetic piece with a slower melodic song, “With You,” placing them in the top 10 and advancing them to the competition finals where they performed their show of songs from the movie “Mary Poppins”.
However, the songs were the only part of “Mary Poppins” they adopted as the chorus left the signature pinstriped costumes alone. Instead, the 76 women ranging in age from high school to over 80 embraced shimmer and sequin with their coordinated gold outfits.
Without any instrumental accompaniment, the vocalists captivated audiences using only their harmonization and choreographed movement. The chorus’s visual communication director adds a visual layer of the music, conveying the music’s interpretation and enhancing the performance.
As a result, members matched the music by extending their arms wide during a long note to expand the impressive vibrato. Other times they stepped quickly side-to-side, creating an energetic visual to match the upbeat tempo.
Briefly reveling in their eighth-place finish, the chorus took one rehearsal off before they began learning a new song for their April competition in Sparks, NV. If they win in spring, DVC will once again qualify to compete at the international level in fall of 2025.
“We have no time to rest,” Rio Vista member Connie Ludwig said. “We have to be completely off-paper by next week. It’s a pretty fast pace when you’re learning and performing at this level.”
Ludwig, a self-proclaimed “barbershop brat” said she became aware of Sweet Adelines when her dad was a barber in the 50s. When Ludwig was a young mom searching for a hobby in the 80s, she joined DVC, taking a hiatus as her kids grew up and later rejoining in 2011.
Describing her decade-spanning participation with the chorus, Ludwig described it as a joyous experience. “It’s an act of love,” she said, adding that it’s about sending the message of the music to the audience and uplifting them.
“It’s a lot of fun to do something really really well, to accomplish something with real skill,” Ludwig said. Ludwig credited the chorus’s international qualification to the musical direction of Caitlin Castelino who joined the chorus in 2015. Castelino is a Sweet Adelines “Queen of Harmony” and baritone for the Sweet Adelines International Champion quartet, LoveNotes.
Despite the busy schedule of the year ahead, some members recently showcased their talent locally, leading a sing-a-long for the Walnut Creek tree lighting ceremony held at Civic Park.
Community is an integral part of DVC’s atmosphere. Through rehearsals and competitions, the chorus offers both the opportunity for personal growth and lifelong friendships.
“It’s in the rehearsals where I find motivation and a sense of belonging that goes beyond the contest stage,” Hugo reflected.
DVC Team Coordinator Mary Heil echoed that sentiment. “I have been a member of Sweet Adelines for 53 years and it just keeps getting better and better. I’ve found that I have grown so much through Sweet Adelines with my confidence, singing ability and just love of music,” she said.
For those looking to support the chorus, there will be a Casino night fundraiser on Feb. 17 at Rossmoor in Walnut Creek.
DVC is open to new members, regardless of past singing experience, who wish to join a dynamic group of women who love singing and creating music together.
The chorus rehearses every Tuesday night from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Grace Presbyterian Church, 2100 Tice Valley Rd., in Walnut Creek. More information about DVC can be found at www.diablovistachorus.com.