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Tampa Bay a cappella leader describes the appeal of barbershop-style singing

Conversation with a barbershop-style choral director Tony De Rosa, who makes music with voices alone
Tony De Rosa (center), choral director of The Tampa Bay Heralds of Harmony,  performing at a competition in Salt Lake City in 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Barbershop Harmony Society)
Tony De Rosa (center), choral director of The Tampa Bay Heralds of Harmony, performing at a competition in Salt Lake City in 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Barbershop Harmony Society) [ (Photo courtesy of the Barbershop Harmony Society) ]
Published Jan. 1
Updated Jan. 2

Times Correspondent

Tony De Rosa, four-time international award-winner of barbershop quartet competitions, directs the a cappella all-male Tampa Bay Heralds of Harmony and the all-female Toast of Tampa Show Chorus. He also vocal directs for the Voices of Liberty chorus and the Dapper Dans barbershop quartet at Walt Disney World.

Normally, the Tampa Bay choruses perform at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts and the University of South Florida concert hall. Since the pandemic began, they’ve been doing online performances. (Go to www.heraldsofharmony.org and www.toastoftampa.org for more information.)

De Rosa, 48, whose late father, “Papa Joe’' De Rosa, was a director of the Tampa Heralds of Harmony, started singing barbershop as a boy. He’s been a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society since age 7. He talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the fun of barbershop-style singing, the history of the genre and what appeals to the hobbyists who take it up.

Why did barbershop style singing appeal to you at that early age?

First of all, the chords, I was just drawn in by the unique turn of the chord structuring that barbershop offers. It just really appealed to me. And then, once I started kind of immersing myself not only in listening to it but more importantly participating, there was just something that was really special to me. There’s nothing quite like that sizzle and lock of a chord between four voices when you get things tuned up really, really well in a barbershop way.

How did this style of singing begin?

Barbershop dates back, the popular opinion would be, to the early 1900s. That was classically our era. … That being said, barbershop music and four-part harmony singing dated way back even before that with African-American roots. But I think a lot of people would at least identify the barbershop style as early 1900s. A lot of times men would just congregate in barbershops. It was not only a place for people to get their haircut, but it ended up being a place for social gathering for men. A lot of times it would end up where they were kind of singing. …

It was all based around songs of the day, simple melodies that the common person could sing… but also that had a harmonic structure that was very attainable and accessible for people who were ear singers to be able to harmonize with. Then from that, we’ve definitely taken the art form and advanced it – a lot of today’s music, a lot of musical theater material, a lot of more contemporary material which probably don’t have some of the classic harmonization structures written into them, but we’ve found ways to make them appealing and accessible and usable from a barbershop harmonizing standpoint.

What are the parts of a barbershop quartet?

From top voice down, we classify it as tenor, who usually sings primarily above the melody. And then the melody singer is usually – we call that our lead, like a lead voice. … And then the bottom of the chord is always the traditional bass role. And then, what makes barbershop inherently unique is we have this fourth part called the baritone part. And baritone is often referred to as the garbage part, because it’s the one part that essentially is kind of taking all of those harmony notes that the tenor and the bass are not singing and actually helping to really make it barbershop. A lot of the baritone range ends up being primarily a similar range to where the melody would be written for a song, but they’re usually working kind of in an answering way, or working around the melody to fill in chords as appropriate.

Tony De Rosa, an award-winning barbershop quartet singer, directs the all-male Tampa Bay Heralds of Harmony and the all-female Toast of Tampa Show Chorus. (Photo: Courtesy by Bob Buchanan)
Tony De Rosa, an award-winning barbershop quartet singer, directs the all-male Tampa Bay Heralds of Harmony and the all-female Toast of Tampa Show Chorus. (Photo: Courtesy by Bob Buchanan) [ Photo: Courtesy by Bob Buchanan) ]

You’re a baritone, right?

I’ve won four international quartet championships through my years doing this, and two were on baritone and then my last two have been on lead, actually.

Why is singing fun?

I think, especially with barbershop singing but singing in general, there’s a couple of things. I’ve been a lifetime performer and singer, and if your heart’s in the right place as a singer, you sing for your own enjoyment but you’re really singing to serve someone else. The whole joy of singing is being able to bless someone else and give someone else a ray of hope and positivity because of the song that you’re sharing. That only goes up exponentially when you’re doing something like a cappella singing, which is what our barbershop style is all about. Because the only way we’re making music is by connecting with other voices. All your investment is you trying to make someone else look better. I’m trying to do what I can to hold my part and sing it as well as possible, not only so that I can merge my voice with someone else, but so that the collection of our voices together brings this wonderful harmonic and harmonious effort to our audience.

The Tampa Bay Heralds of Harmony.
The Tampa Bay Heralds of Harmony. [ (Photo courtesy of the Barbershop Harmony Society) ]

Who are the members of your choruses?

We’re traditionally just hobbyists, people who have maybe sung at some different point in their life through maybe some sort of choral program as they were growing up. And that’s gone by the wayside and they’re looking for an outlet to be able to vocalize. A lot times people walk in our door who have never sung before from an organized standpoint. … If you can sing a tune, match a pitch and are willing to be humble and have a great work ethic, we love to have any and everyone coming through our doors.

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What is your goal as director?

It’s funny, because I think that the role of a barbershop chorus director is not nearly as much about music as it is about psychology and managing expectations. And I mean that with great affection and love in my heart. It was one of the first things that my dad taught me as a director in general, but especially as a director of barbershop choruses. That, yes, the music is important, and teaching skills and fundamentals of becoming better singers and performers is hopefully what our membership is really, really attached to. But creating a sense of community and family, a place where people feel they can be not only welcomed but appreciated for not only who they are but their love and genuine interest in this particular style of music.