Around Asheville: Making more of "us" through song
If, on the freezing cold night of the first day of the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, you happened to be walking along Haywood Road in West Asheville, thinking about the strife and turmoil in which your country was embroiled, you might have seen light shining into the darkness from the West Asheville Community Center.
And fast upon that light would you have heard song. Because inside that center, every Tuesday night from 7-9 p.m., the Asheville chapter of the international Barbershop Harmony Society gathers to rehearse.
When chapter president Steve Anderson spots you outside staring through the window, he opens the door, and says, "C'mon in!" A retired NATO officer who fairly radiates clear-eyed affability, he then shares with you all about Barbershop Harmony Society.
“How great!” you say. “I love old-school barber shop quartet singing!”
“So do we!” says Steve. “Our chorus sings all the classic old songs, and lots of modern songs, too. You’re welcome to stay and watch us rehearse.”
The group begins by standing in a big circle, where they stretch and sing vowel sounds before moving on to songs. Their assistant music director, Andy Reach, prowls about inside the circle.
“These aren’t just songs!” Andy enthuses. “They’re expressions of pure and intense emotions! Don’t sing them with your mouth and your lungs alone! Sing them with your heart!”
After the circle has broken up into smaller groups, retired Air Force officer Bill Fieffer, who’s been singing with the chorus for 11 years, stops by your chair.
“You gonna join us?” he asks.
You answer, “Well, I noticed that everyone here has ears. So, no.” Following his booming laugh, Mr. Fieffer grows thoughtful. “The kind of amazing thing is that, when you’re singing with other people, you become a musical instrument. And so does everyone you’re singing with. And you’re all accompanying each other. It’s beautiful.”
Retired endocrinologist and bass singer Bryson Ley chimes in. “The question is, how much is ‘we,’ and how much is ‘them’? We should all be ‘us.’ But everyone’s sense of community has withered over the last 30 years. Not here, though. Here, we make community.”
Rillian T., 13 years old, joined the group four months ago, along with his 16-year-old-brother, Gareth. When you and he have a moment alone together, you ask Rillian why he would care to spend so much time around so many people who are old enough to be his grandparents.
His eyes grow wide. “Because there’s so much they can pass along to me! Old people KNOW stuff!”
Turning to Rillian’s mother, Michelle, you say, “I’ll pay you to let me keep this boy.”
Beaming, Michelle says, “Sorry! Not for sale!”
The rehearsal ends with all the members of the chorus, standing on three tiers of risers, singing together in a way that would make angels in heaven jealous.
As, waving goodbye to the group, you step back out into the frigid darkness, you recall something Steve said to you: “Everyone here has their own political opinions, of course. But we happily leave all of that at the door. Because we come together, week after week, to do one thing, and one thing only: to harmonize.”
And suddenly the night doesn’t feel quite so cold, nor the world so riven.
If you’d like to join the Asheville chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society (or have its singers regale your love this Valentine’s Day!) contact Steve at 828-782-7720.
Originally published on the front of the Sunday "Living" section of the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper (part of the USA Today Network) on Jan. 30, 2020.