Mention the words “barbershop quartet” and several images come to mind: harmony, men, The Music Man. But every Tuesday night, a group of 30 women define a new standard for barbershop in 2015. This group comes together to rehearse, share fellowship, and devote time to perfecting their craft. The driving force behind this group is director Sandy Bergersen, an enthusiastic supporter and promoter of Lake Country Chorus. This effervescent woman is the perfect leader for women from different walks of life who have a single focus: to sing, compete and bring joy to their audiences.
The chorus, formed in 1968 as White Bear Lake Chorus, changed its name to be more inclusive of members who travel from across the state to be a part of it. Bergersen began singing at the age of 4, culminating in winning contests and eventually leading to a 34-year stint as the chorus’ director. She first became aware of barbershop music while hearing it performed by a quartet in 1972—on the evening news, of all places. Once that happened, she was hooked.
Women of all vocal skill levels join the chorus. “Most people in a chorus do not read music,” says Bergersen. “If someone is eager to learn to sing, we have all the tools to help.” A simple voice test helps her place singers as tenors, lead, bass or baritone, and Bergersen encourages 10 minutes of vocal exercises each day. And then it’s simply a matter of practice makes perfect.
Helen Vulu, longtime member and chorus president, always liked the harmony of barbershop, but had to wait until the timing was right to participate. “It took me a while to read music,” Vulu says, but it didn’t take long for her to become a believer. “We love just going out and singing for people.” It quickly became obvious that Lake Country Chorus meant more to its members than the opportunity to share their vocal talents. “What I didn’t expect,” Vulu says, “was friendships, both locally and at regional activities. It expands your circle of friends.”
One of the missions of the group is to nurture and provide music education for younger singers in schools. “When budgets are cut, they cut arts. We do one-day workshops and teach basics of barbershop,” says Vulu. “These are kids that want to sing.” There is an acknowledgment that the next generation of singers is the key to keeping the barbershop tradition flourishing.
The chorus’ busy schedule runs the gamut from a fall spaghetti dinner and an annual Christmas show to merging their musical talents with the Northstar Men’s Chorus every summer at Como Park. They sing at worship services and assisted-living homes, and even have a small quartet (which includes Vulu) who perform singing valentines. Twice a year, Lake Country Chorus polishes their repertoire to compete in a regional barbershop competition, the winner eligible to go international. Pete Benson, of the Benson Family Singers, provides additional coaching in the weeks leading up to the competition. Dressed in showy contest outfits, the group is judged on music, showmanship, sound and expression. Any barbershop-arranged music is eligible for competition, whether it is gospel or show tunes, and the members always rise to the occasion.
The success of this group depends on the commitment of Bergersen, her members, their love of music and mutual dedication. “We care about each other,” Vulu says. “This is the place when you don’t feel like coming, you need to come.”