Human voice in harmony: in flight on Cupid’s golden arrow

Director Angel Michaels and the Islands Chordsmen Plus deliver a singing Valentine's Day surprise at the Friday Harbor branch of Islanders Bank.

The idea of delivering a Valentine’s Day wish to someone’s sweetheart, in a song, by request, certainly didn’t get its start in Friday Harbor.

In the world of barbershop singers, it’s a long-standing tradition, an opportunity universally recognized as ideal for highlighting the music and furthering the mission.

On San Juan Island, however, they’ve added a twist and taken it to a whole new level. Thirty to 35 so-called “gigs” on V-Day? Well, it’s all in a days work for Island Chordsmen Plus, as they say, but virtually unheard of elsewhere in barbershop land.

“I’m pretty sure those kind of numbers (30-35) are not typical of what you’ll find in other places,” Chordsmen Plus Director Angel Michaels said. “And you usually don’t get a whole choir either. Most places you get a quartet. We don’t have a quartet, but we really like doing it as a whole choir anyhow.”

For the Chordsmen, the yearly plunge into its repertoire of about a dozen romantically infused barbershop standards began a decade ago, give or take a year. Michaels recalls being prodded by the group not long after taking the helm about mastering a few songs and lending their voice to the Valentine’s Day affair.

So they did, although Michaels mistakenly believed at that time that the group had done this kind of thing before.

“So, we went out and did this crazy thing,” she recalls, “and the next year they said, ‘Hey, let’s do it again.’ I think we all just love making people feel good.”

Not so crazy after all.

Come Saturday, the Chordsmen collective, whose roster hovers around 16, on any given day, and whose combined age teeters near 999, will be up and out the door early. Donned in customary Valentine’s Day regalia, black pants, white shirt (or black), redbarbershop singers vest and red tie, the singers will have a tight time schedule to keep to ensure all orders expected that day are delivered.

A year ago, the band of bustling barbershoppers fulfilled no fewer than 30 Valentine’s Day requests, singing from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and, as Dan Drath recalls, while entertaining an audience of 400 or more. That sum, Drath notes, includes the many spectators who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, like restaurant or office building, and heard a tune or two performed by the roaming band of minstrels.

While there’s little room for lollygagging, Drath foresees an impromptu appearance at a well-travel public place or two along the way, to serenade the unsuspecting, as it captures the spirit of the day.

“The acoustics in the post office are surprisingly good,” he said.

Founded by Dick Saylor in the mid-1990s, Island Chordsmen Plus is now a fixture in Friday Harbor’s circle of entertainment. Carrying the barbershop banner for two decades, the Chordsmen perform regularly at the annual San Juan Historical Society annual Christmas, the yearly town holiday tree-lighting festival, herald the arrival of the Santa Ship, entertain at the convalescent center and Village of the Harbour (home of its weekly practice session) and periodically participate at the Independence Day parade.

The highlight of the barbershop year comes the first Sunday in June, when Chordsmen Plus joins forces with the community theatre to sponsor, host and perform in the Barbershop Bonanza, an annual showcase of regionally acclaimed barbershop quartets, choirs and performers.

Of late, the Chordsmen have been called upon to offer its chorus of voices in harmony as a comfort to those in the final days of life.

“Those are hard gigs for us,” Michael said. “But for the guys it’s real important to do.”

Come Saturday, hearts will be light and voices will be raised in song, barbershop style. If you haven’t dialed up one for your sweetheart, well, maybe you’ll end up in the right place at the right time, and get lucky. And, if remember that if the choir seems to be having as good a time or better than anyone else in the room, it’s because they probably are.

“The point is to spread the love of music, that’s our purpose,” Drath said. “Our goal is to keep the whole world singing.”

— Editor’s note: to order a singing Valentine’s, call 370-5544 or (360) 298-4682. Suggested donation is $35-40; the group operates on a sliding-scale that works to fit both the occasion and individual circumstances. Visit the Chordsmen website at www.islandchordsmenplus.org