Race on the Path to Choral Conducting: Bridges into Barbershop

Shana Oshiro Feb 22, 2021

Learn more: member management, artistic development, arts equity

Rhythm of New Hampshire Show Chorus singing

I wonder who may clutch their pearls at the notion of barbershop chorus singing being discussed as part of the choral world. Truly, it’s a very different beast when considering its unique cultural context and the aesthetics that come with it, which are very much in contrast with what those in the classical or even the jazz world would consider the standards of choral/ensemble singing. Vocally, one might describe it as an interesting combination of a baroque-like straight tone with the flair of Broadway. Visually, like a military marching band raided the backstage of a beauty pageant. Viscerally, somehow a bit bizarre and utterly captivating at the same time. 

When I first set foot in this bubble of a music community with Harmony, Incorporated with my newly forming quartet Epic in 2011, I too was both enchanted and confused. For one thing, how could such a cool and exciting community have been unknown to me my entire life up to that point? How is it that so many of these people who claim not to sing or deal much with music in any other capacity have seemingly mastered such a difficult vocal art form? And how could so many people be singing this historically Black music and I’m one of two Black people I could spot in the ballroom where the contest was taking place?

By now, the history has been relatively well proliferated that barbershop music is rooted in African American singing traditions (and if you don’t know, now you know). At the time I’d entered the space, I recall among this predominantly White community that the culture of barbershop was grounded very much in distinguishing its style from any other style of ensemble/a cappella singing from which it was rooted or from which styles in jazz and gospel music later developed. When asked, "have you ever sung barbershop before?" I’d reply that while I hadn’t sung strictly four-part harmony in this way, I had a good deal of experience in jazz and gospel singing that were quite similar. "Well, no—that’s different," they’d answer. The question as to why there weren’t many people of color didn’t sit with me long. As friendly and beautiful as the community was, I could see why many of my own friends and family might not feel particularly welcome in this kind of space. 

It wasn’t until years later that issues of historic songs from antebellum and postbellum Southern culture frequently sung at barbershop events were brought to my awareness (my group at the time didn’t sing much of the old school straw hat hits). This was another issue (among other messy and complicated ones) that made it difficult to attract and retain people of color as active members. Jessie Caynon Oslan, president of our organization HALO, Incorporated, was not only the first African American director of Sweet Adelines International — she has also been a powerful voice throughout the barbershop community in educating chapter members, directors, and judges of the racist roots of many of the beloved songs in their organizations’ repertoire. This interview was my first opportunity to find out what attracted her to this community and its music and what drove her to take on this position of leadership as one of the very, very few women of color represented in the organization.

 

An Interview with Jessie Caynon Oslan

Jessie Caynon

Jessie Caynon Oslan

Jessie Caynon Oslan is a member of Sweet Adelines International for nearly 30 years. She is currently a certified Harmony 500 director of Rhythm of New Hampshire Show Chorus in New Hampshire, and a member of Harmony, Incorporated. Jessie is also a member of Harmony Inc’s Equality and Diversity Committee and Sweet Adeline’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council. Prior to becoming a director, Jessie served as Assistant Director, Section Leader, Choreographer and various musical and administrative positions for Profile Chorus in Manchester, NH and Merrimack Valley Chorus in Wilmington, MA. Jessie currently is a regional faculty member teaching technology classes, PVI’s, chorus and quartet coaching throughout New England and Canada. She has also served as director for the gospel and children’s choirs at her church and has performed as a soloist.

Throughout her Sweet Adeline life, Jessie has sung bass in several quartets, most recently in Accentricity. She also serves as Telecommunications Manager at East Boston Neighborhood Health Center in Boston, Massachusetts and resides with her husband in New Hampshire.

 

SHANA

Can you just tell me about your career as a conductor? What you do as a conductor and what brought you to this point?

 

JESSIE

I have been directing barbershop with Sweet Adelines since 2005. And the reason I was actually interested indirecting Sweet Adelines or barbershop... I also, prior to that, had been directing and my church choir. I had started looking into information about Sweet Adelines just to find out how many directors of color there had been, and then found out that there had been no Black directors. I believe there was a woman that was from Brazil, but they had not had an African American frontline directors when I had come in. So, I just decided I was going to start a group and try to reach out to women of color and see if we could help change some things a little bit. 

So, prior to COVID-19, I was responsible for selecting the music, teaching the music to the chorus members, doing private vocal instructions. I was also coaching other choruses and I was on the faculty as part of Sweet Adelines Region 1 for a time, as well as being on their board and management team. I guess I try to bring the music to life. I try to focus most of the music that are more jazz, blues — I'm not really into the "old school" barbershop stuff. But I’ve been really trying to teach the barbershop style to people.

And then I also try to educate people about the history of Barbershop. I went around to a lot of different organizations when I first became a director, trying to reach out to people of color, like the African American historical societies that are here in New England, to give them the history of barbershop; that it was founded in the African American culture. And not many Black people were aware of that. I remember one when I asked them, "What does barbershop mean to you?" And one of the women said, "A bunch of old White guys singing Dixie music." And so I worked to try to educate people, to help reclaim it. But I think it's been problematic, you know? The style of music that has really been dominant in the culture, that the music was really off-putting to a lot of people of color. But hopefully we'll be changing.

Rhythm of New Hampshire Show Chorus on Sing That Thing

 

SHANA

So you’ve found that it's hard to get people — Black people, that is — into Barbershop, because their associations with it have been so off-putting from the appropriations by White quartets. Is that more about the presentation and association with White people that have come from its appropriation, or is it their experience with the content of the music — the Dixie stuff?

 

JESSIE

I think it's definitely the second. I think that appropriation is something we've all become familiar with, and a large part of the music styles that we have introduced to the country or to the world. So I think that's not as off-putting, but it's the songs, themselves.

 

SHANA

And you mentioned that you got the beginnings of your conducting experience in church. So your formal education was or was not in music?

 

JESSIE

No, it is not. I was in music classes, bands and things from first grade up through college.

So I know a lot about reading music and things like that. I didn't actually start singing until I was well out of school, because my voice was always a lower voice and up in New England, where I grew up, there really wasn't a place for lower-voice women in our school. So I just ended up staying with the music side of things and then started assisting at church with directing music and performing and singing, as well.

 

SHANA

So talk to me, if you will, about the community and the circle of barbershop — what does that look like in terms of the educational pathway within the barbershop community and the people who you’re usually surrounded by in those settings?

 

JESSIE

I actually went through the Director Certification Program. So I attended a lot of the educational weekends. I would attend classes that help develop the skills necessary for the different modules they had as part of your certification with Sweet Adelines. And then at their international seminars, they would have classes that were specifically for those particular modules. And then you have the opportunity to take tests at the educational weekends to pass. You had to give a recording of yourself directing a group with the camera pointed towards you so that someone would critique what you were doing.

I also had a mentor, a coaching mentor. They actually selected me as one of the recipients to have a director mentorship, so they flew an international faculty member out to work with me. We met at the International Education Symposium and then had some discussions about my vision for my group. And then they paid for her to come out and work with the chorus of a couple of times.

 

SHANA

So, back track for me — because I'm thinking as you describe coming into the barbershop community through directing the chorus and the difficulty that you have experienced in presenting barbershop music to other African American singers who aren't interested because of the repertoire. Can you talk a bit about how you came into barbershop again, and what was the appeal to you? And I know that you've, of course, been very vocal about advocating for the removal of these songs with harmful subjects and content and so forth. What compelled you to push back instead of bow out, as many African Americans have?

 

JESSIE

I came into the organization through a friend from work who brought me in and I visited her chorus. My father was involved with music, my grandfathers, uncles, aunts… and my dad's second cousin is Ertha Kitt. So, I think we just have always had music in our lives. And I listened to all types of musical styles, not just the big bands — classical music, religious music. So, I really liked the idea of singing without holding the music which was the barrier to me. And so I enjoyed the theatrical aspect of it. And the chorus that I first joined did not sing some of those songs that I found out about after I had joined. If they had, probably my destination might have been different, but they really weren't singing music like that. So I didn't get exposed to it until I had been in for almost a year. When we went to my first regional. So [until then] I hadn't really been exposed to any other groups other than my chorus. 

And that was the eye opener to me — there were a couple of choruses that sang songs that I knew just because of the background that I grew up in, I knew what those songs were. And I was appalled that people were singing these songs in the North! And I approached one of the chorus members during intermission and I said, "do you guys really even know what this song is about?" And she didn't even know what they were singing. She had no idea. And I told her what it was about. And then I realized that a lot of people don't know the beginnings of these songs, and then some of the words may have been changed. 

So that kind of woke me up to affect the fact that wow, this is some racist stuff happening here. But the people were not, I think, doing it with the intent to hurt. They just had no understanding of the history of the music. So I started trying to educate people whenever I could, or whenever I was in an audience and somebody sang one of those songs, I would find that artist afterwards to let them know about that history. Give them information and where they could find it and just kind of let them know that these songs have a dark history associated with them. And they're really not singing about, they're not singing truth. And we shouldn't be singing lies as performers.

 

SHANA

And how receptive were other directors to that, when you have presented the racist history of a lot of these songs?

 

JESSIE

I would say half of them were very receptive. I think the other half were feeling that, well, changing the words should be enough to make the songs remain in existence. But, I think one of the things that's been the most eye-opening to people is once you ask them to do the research themselves instead of you telling them, having them actually do a little of the research and see some of the covers of some of the music, to read some of the "unsanitized" lyrics, things like that that they never really realized where there — I do believe that is causing an awakening in some people.

 

SHANA

It’s interesting, because the world of barbershop is a mixed bag; the art of conducting is a very particular one in the barbershop sphere. It's not the same as conducting any other chorus with  usually a fixed meter throughout. Often accompanied, but even if it's not, you usually have a set time signature. But especially for barbershop ballads, it's much more fluid. And so even though some people who come into choral conducting in barbershop have cut through by way of an educational pathway, a lot of people like yourself have other experiences that led to the mastery of this particular genre of choral conducting. 

So having talked about the off-putting nature of these songs of the old South for African Americans and you know, maybe other races — can you describe the race breakdown of most of the people who are in this in the community and who are also conducting?  And tell me if there's anything else about why you think that is.

 

JESSIE

Well, in Sweet Adelines, it's predominantly White women. There are some males —predominantly White males. I have seen an occasional person of color. Other than myself, I think that yeah, out of the hundreds of directors we might — we might have maybe 30-50 of us that are people of color. 

 

SHANA

Among how many?

 

JESSIE

Hundreds. And I'm talking probably frontline directors, people that have qualified for it, probably are over 1,000. And so I would say we don't make up 1%. And I think that's reflective of our presence in the organization, as well. When Sweet Adelines was around 20,000 [members], we didn't number 1,000. I know that Harmony, Inc. is just a few thousand members, but I think that there's probably a higher percentage of people of color because of the beginning of the organization. But I still think that [greater percentage] may have [decreased] — maybe the organization was singing the same songs, and they may have lost opportunities too — Harmony, Inc., that is. 

 

SHANA

So from where you stand, the main reason for the lack of representation among people of color is the disconnect on the songs and their origins?

 

JESSIE

Yeah, and I do think there's some additional things that happen — the costuming choices, some of the things that were worn by choruses. I don't think you'd see women of color gravitate towards [them]. It kind of looks like an old White women’s organization, and that would also make, I think, a woman of color feel strange. 

 

SHANA

And if you got to just be president of everything barbershop-related, what would you change about these conditions of the community to attract and retain a more diverse group of people?

 

JESSIE 

Well, beyond the song choices, I would look at some of the areas that people rehearse in. What message are you sending out to people when they come through the door? Are you warm and welcoming? Do you look dated and out of touch? Or do you look like you're open to anyone walking through that — even someone with purple hair? There was a woman that would always have different contact lenses — like one was a smiley face, and I mean the weirdest thing. But it was so cool! But then I could hear some of the older women talking about, "Oh, my gosh, how weird that looked!" And they couldn't believe that she would want to wear something like that on stage. Stuff like that. I think it's not about that. It's about singing.

I think the uniformity of the organization at times can be off-putting to diverse people because not all women or all people want to be dressed in frilly, sparkly things with corsets and false eyelashes, and all of that. I would change that for sure. I think I would stop the focus being on such uniformity visually, and thinking more about the artistic capacity of the individual. I do understand that you can reach a point where you could distract from your message, so you do wanna watch for that. But I don't think everyone has to wear exactly the same thing for an audience to enjoy it. I’ve seen groups that go out with color schemes, groups that go out with outfits that suit who they are as individuals, and you can see the comfort that they have and and the relaxation they have with themselves. And it draws you in.

And the makeup. I'm not a "makeup-y" person. So, I think that can be an off-putting thing if that's such a focus. For a singing organization, it seems like a lot of it is spent on looks — the visual, cosmetic side of it. Not really the artistic side of it. I mean, looking at a person’s expressions and whether they're communicating the song visually is one thing. But whether they're wearing the right shade of red lipstick, that makes no sense to me.

 

SHANA

And a little from that from readers who might not be connected with this: how much of that is represented from within the chorus, itself, and how much of that is communicated and expressed from the judging?

 

JESSIE

I think that’s a "what comes first, the chicken or the egg" kind of thing. I think because the judges have made that so important that at times they've written comments — at least in the Sweet Adelines world, they write about the color of the lipstick or the foundation. Things like that. And so people have become paranoid about that, and I kid you not: even in my chorus, when we were Sweet Adelines, there were times when my makeup person would want to have class or have an extra rehearsal to show people how to do makeup and stuff like that was driving me crazy because I was about the music, not about stuff like that. So, I think in some choruses it can become obsessive to a point where it’s uncomfortable.

Once when I was a chorus member, I actually had a woman try to tell me... the outfit we wore was supposed to be a bare chest look, but then you were going to wear that material like the gymnasts do. And she basically said to me that in order to be uniform, I should have the same flesh tone as the rest of the ladies. Even though I'm Black! And I'm like, are you crazy? I'm not walking out with a peach flesh tone and I’m brown!

 

SHANA

That’s absurd.

 

JESSIE

It was totally absurd! But this is what she was saying because of uniformity. And she was so strict... I basically had to tell them, well, then I guess I'm not going to be performing or going on stage if you're telling me I have to do that because I will not wear a white flesh tone on my brown skin. I refuse to go out like that. And luckily, the director was nice and she said, "Of course not. That is ridiculous." So it became a nonissue quickly.

 

SHANA

Well, that's good. And at the same time, still a little bizarre that that would even arise.



Wrap-Up

Take or leave the lashes and the costumes, it’s my strong belief and personal observation that the greatest asset within the art and culture of barbershop is the love and belonging people experience within the community. In Sweet Adelines and Harmony, Incorporated I’d bet my children’s weight in pitch pipes that more than half the members of these organizations don’t own or use sequins or eye shadow palettes for any other occasions but the performances, conventions, and afterglows in which they experience this unique fellowship. The ongoing struggle for creating a space that truly fosters inclusion and equity within these organizations is one I certainly hope will eventually lead to a platform in which choral singing can transcend lip service and be a beacon of light for the possibilities of commitment to justice and equality for the rest of our society. With women like Jessie in positions of leadership, I do believe there’s at least good reason for hope.

 

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Shana Oshiro

Shana Oshiro, is an alumna of Morgan State University with a BFA in Vocal Performance and a former Miss Maryland. She has appeared with Opera Philadelphia in productions of Porgy and Bess and Margaret Garner and made several appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as a featured ensemble member, as well as multiple local orchestras and chorales in the DC Metropolitan area. Shana is also a board-certified music therapist with a Masters in Music Therapy from Shenandoah Conservatory. She has continued her performance career combining her interest in community music therapy to address racism in the United States with her barbershop quartet, HALO, and their collective community music therapy initiative with their program Race and #RealTalk — a program in which people are guided through the listening and singing experience of Barbershop music to help engage with one another in difficult conversations about our country’s complex issues with race relations.

Shana Oshiro