Making friends, making music, and making memories.
That’s what the Oswego Valley Snowbelters Barbershop Chorus is all about.
In unison, the group’s members say that camaraderie is what makes being part of the group so wonderful.
“I enjoy the fellowship, friendships, and making music. There you go,” said Snowbelters 13-year member James Carroll.
“This is a family,” said Barney Johnson, the group’s director. “That’s the thing that we have all come to enjoy about this chorus. We enjoy doing what we’re doing. Whatever we do, we do it together. Whether it’s getting ready for a show, helping somebody in need, working on a project together, anything. This is a chorus that loves doing everything we do and doing it together.”
Rehearsals are underway for the Snowbelters’ 11th annual Christmas Show, set for Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Oswego Alliance Community Center, 371 Thompson Road, Oswego. Entitled, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” performances will begin at 2:01 p.m. and 7:01 p.m.
Why the unconventional start times?
“We did that just to make people ask the question ‘Why did you do that?’ It was just to be different,” Johnson said.
Each performance will be two hours in length, with free desserts and beverages at intermission. Tickets are available on the group’s website at https://ovcsnowbelters.org/ovc-store. Tickets will also be available at the door.
“This show is unique in the fact that it’s basically all the barbershop Christmas music you can stand in a two-hour event,” Johnson said. “That free homemade dessert really hits people where they live. We also do a number of fundraising things, raffles and things like that, in the hallway.”
In addition to the harmonious performance of holiday favorites at the show, the Snowbelters will be collecting non-perishable food items and monetary donations for the Oswego Salvation Army food bank.
It is the community service aspect that many members of the Snowbelters also find appealing.
“That right there for us is probably 50 percent of the entire thing,” Johnson said.
Roger Wells, part of the Snowbelters for 43 years, agreed.
“Actually, the main reason why I’m still a member for all these years, other than the family-type atmosphere, is the outreach we do for nursing homes and senior citizens,” Wells said. “That’s what really sold me big time about staying in barbershop.”
Wells is one of the older members of the group, but the current cast includes no charter members.
The Oswego Valley Chorus was chartered on Sept. 11, 1962. All of the members were part of the Barbershop Harmony Society.
“How the chorus got started was a whole bunch of guys from the area of Oswego — Oswego Valley — started a chorus and got chartered,” Johnson said.
Current members of the Snowbelters are tenors Justin Grower, Roger Wells, and Tim Weber; leads Bill Clark, Robert Coad, Brian Dice, Gordon Halstead, Barney Johnson, Dominick Slocum, and Matt Slocum; baritones Nathaniel Ahart, Doug Bower, James Carroll, and Brian Weaver; and basses William Arvin, Tom Czerow, John Howe, Tom Parkhurst, Bayley Raponi, and Ed Rauch.
Within the Snowbelters Chorus is the Classic Touch Quartet consisting of Wells, Johnson, Howe, and Weaver.
The Snowbelters perform two major shows a year, one in the spring at the First United Methodist Church in Oswego, and the Christmas show.
Beyond those major shows, the group’s members entertain at several other venues during the year. Members have performed the national anthem for Syracuse University basketball, Oswego Speedway, and Memorial Day celebrations. They have performed at the state fair, and in local schools.
The Snowbelters, a non-profit organization, also look for other ways to give back to the community.
“We know that there are a number of organizations that truly love to have live entertainment come in,” Johnson said. “As much as we are able to do so, we love going into senior care facilities.”
They also perform singing Valentines, “which is a ton of fun to do,” Johnson said.
Those wishing to ask the Snowbelters to perform may visit ovcsnowbelters.org for details.
The group holds rehearsals on Monday nights at the Oswego Alliance Community Center. During a recent rehearsal, listeners might have wondered why any practice was needed. The harmonies were rich and smooth, and the Snowbelters already seemed to be fine-tuned for the Christmas show.
And it’s all done a cappella.
“Some of the guys have some experience in doing some other kinds of singing outside of barbershop. Some guys, their only experience might be singing in the shower or in church and then singing here,” said Johnson, a music teacher at Oswego High School. “Some of us have experience, some degrees, and that helps. But there’s never a requirement for anybody in the barbershop group to do that.”
Johnson pointed out that throughout the Barbershop Harmony Society, there is a large percentage of the membership that doesn’t read music. They learn by ear or by rote.
“It’s neat to teach them that,” Johnson said. “Our chorus is gaining in the ability to read music, which is kind of fun for me as a music teacher. That really helps.”
The Snowbelters always welcome new members, he added.
Preparations for the Christmas show began soon after the spring show. Wells said it takes a lot of fine-tuning to get things just right.
“We don’t use music. We use no background. It’s all just a cappella,” Wells said. “Most of the guys don’t read music. They learn by ear. When we’re singing, they have to learn it. When you’re doing 20-some songs, you’re doing a lot of learning. Barney does a great job as the director to make sure that we get things done.”
“It is a lot of work,” Carroll said, adding that he didn’t mind singing holiday tunes during the summer heat. “You start Christmas music and there’s something great about it. I love it, and I think everyone does.”
The Snowbelters have the opportunity to take part in competitions during the year. The Barbershop Harmony Society itself sponsors a number of conventions, including a large convention in the summer and a mid-winter convention in January.
“Those are the really big conventions that are held nationally for all the organizations, not just the Barbershop Harmony Society which is Canada and the United States, but all of our affiliate organizations throughout the world,” Johnson said.
Regionally, there are 17 geographical districts in the U.S. and Canada. Within those districts there are two major groups that compete — quartets and choruses.
“At the international convention, both quartets and choruses compete for international championships,” Johnson said.
In order to give choruses more time to raise the funds to afford the next summer’s trip, the fall convention held at the end of September is the international chorus preliminaries and the quartet championships, Johnson said. They switch roles in the spring, because it takes less time for a quartet to raise the funds to go to nationals.
There are other groups that compete as well, including youth quartets, college quartets, and senior quartets.
“We have as much singing and as much competing as possible, and all of it is geared to help the singer and our art form improve, and for everybody to have a great time doing it,” Johnson said.
The spirit that exists within the Snowbelters also exists with other groups, he noted.
“I could be coaching a quartet that will be competing in the same competition against me, and I will be rooting them on for them to do their best, and they will be coaching us and rooting for us to do our best,” he said. “You don’t see that in other organizations.”
Wells said he was a little intimidated when he first joined the chorus.
“I had a friend (Al Cox) from Hannibal. I was a church member and we did a lot of stuff with other churches, singing cantatas and things in Hannibal,” Wells said. “I was lucky enough to do a few solos. Al Cox said ‘You’ve got to come and sing barbershop.’”
Wells replied that he had four children and was too busy, and this went on for a couple of years. Finally, Cox stopped by one day and said “Pick you up at 7” and turned around and walked away before Wells had a chance to say anything.
That night, they went to State Street Church in Fulton.
“We started to walk in and I heard them warming up and said ‘I’ll never make this group.’ It just gave me chills. That’s how I got started,” Wells said.
Wells also credited Bob Carnes for convincing him that performing for seniors was something that was very rewarding and appreciated. Wells said there was one time when he was much younger that he had a tough time singing in a nursing home.
“I walked out and said I’ll never do another one of these,” he said.
Carnes took him aside, looked him in the eye, and told him it was very important to take the time to do that for the audience of seniors.
“He walked away and was really perturbed at me. I starting thinking about that, and I’ve never missed one in 43 years,” Wells said.
At the performances for seniors, there aren’t always many outward signs that the singing is being appreciated. But the group’s members know that it is.
Wells recalled one performance where an elderly woman in a wheelchair was in the audience.
“You wouldn’t even know she knew you were singing,” he said. “All of a sudden I saw her finger going to the music and I almost cried. That sold me. That to me is the greatest asset for this chorus is the work that we do for those folks.”
Being there in song or in brotherhood makes being part of the Oswego Valley Snowbelters Barbershop Chorus special.
“It’s the family type of atmosphere,” Wells said. “If you have something happen to yourself or a family member or anything, these guys are always here for you. That’s one of the most important things in this chapter. We’re brothers, let’s put it that way.”