Everyday miracles are often overlooked. Take, for instance, the ability to turn a mishmash group of men, ranging from high school age to 80 with no formal musical training, into a chorus of voices that spreads entertainment and happiness throughout the Kansas City area.
Johnson County’s Trails West Barbershop Chorus is a chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, formerly known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, a world-wide umbrella organization that provides musical arrangements, chapter support and leadership as well as the opportunity to participate in semi-annual conventions and competitions. The chapter began in the early 1970s under the direction of Russ Craig, Jim Silvers and several other members, but after singing for several years became inactive. In 1998, Craig and Silvers resurrected the group with the help of Bill Dodds, Byron Stephens, Mike Rowland and Wayne Philipp, all of whom are still members.
Under the current leadership of Dale Ellis as president and Randy Schott as director, the group boasts a roster of 32 men who gather weekly to transform their voices from solo to something bigger. Schott is the sole professional musician in the group; most members do not read music but have learned by listening to instructional materials. Loren Goss is the immediate past president of the chorus; his term ended at the end of 2011.
“We welcome all men who like to sing,” says Ellis. While one current member sings with the Kansas City Symphony, others participate as non-professionals, drawn in solely by their love of music and desire to share their voice with the community. The roster includes men from all walks of life, including a doctor, lawyer, student, engineer, grade school teacher, ground keeper and printer, as well as many retired gentlemen.
“More than anything else we like to bring some happiness to all elements of the community by doing something that is a real joy,” says Ellis. Because the chorus is a non-competition group the members can attend and participate at the level that works best for them individually.
The chorus practices year round for a schedule of larger-scale events that are consistent each year. The Senior Follies, on March 11 at the Polsky Auditorium at Johnson County Community College, is sponsored by Johnson County Parks and Recreation.
The fall show, held in October at the Bell Center of Mid American Nazarene University, usually features both a local group and a headliner group of a competition level quartet, as well as a performance by the chapter of songs arranged in barbershop style. The chorus aims to connect with a local high school to feature during the annual fall show.
The chorus’ favorite and most anticipated event, though, is Valentine’s Day. Known as the Barbershopper’s National Holiday, the chorus uses their unique sound and skills to realize their major fundraiser of the year. For a charge of $50, a quartet sings several songs and presents the lucky recipient with a rose and small box of candy. The chorus travels from nursing homes to schools, restaurants, offices, fitness clubs and homes to serenade recipients and spread a bit of Valentine’s Day cheer. The most unique place they have been so far is a boxing ring.
“Singing Valentines are some of the most fun we have all year. We really appreciate the husband of a girls’ high school basketball coach,” says Ellis. “He has ordered a Valentine from us for the past six years, and we sing to her and her team at their practice. Last year he called to order again and said ‘She’ll be surprised, just like every other year!’”
“Last year we sang for a young lady who was suffering from a blood disease and had been unable to go out for a long while. Her mom relayed to us later what a special day that had been for her,” says Ellis.
The money earned from the Valentine’s Day promotion and the proceeds from the fall show fund scholarships for local college-bound seniors who plan to study in a field of music. The chorus provides an application to area high school music teachers to encourage seniors to apply for the scholarship and is striving to increase the number of scholarships they can support each year.
The chorus is also piloting a new program this year in which they provide a cappella music to high school and middle school music programs. Using funds generated by the Olathe Arts Alliance, the chorus hopes to work with teachers to demonstrate and encourage singing close harmony.
“Many of our members began singing barbershop style in junior high and high school with the support and encouragement of our music teachers,” says Ellis. “We would like to pass that joy along to younger generations.”
In addition to the grand performances and annual events, the chorus keeps busy through the year performing at local nursing homes, retirement communities, community service clubs and community events such as Old Settler’s Day and the Mayor’s Winterfest in Olathe.
“We are really open to invitations for events, and will send quartets or more for wedding receptions, birthday parties, anniversaries, family picnics, summer church groups and other groups wanting entertainment or special music,” says Ellis.
While the obvious benefits of sharpening their vocal skills draws many men to the chorus, Ellis shares that it is more about the friendships and relationships that the men build that keeps so many of them active and passionate about the chorus. The chorus currently meets every Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. at the First Baptist Church at 2024 E. 151st St. in Olathe, and welcomes anyone interested to stop by and participate.
“After performing at nursing home or retirement communities, we always greet the audience and their response of warmth and happiness makes us wish we could sing for them every day.”