In his much younger days, while living in Missouri, Paul Schaughency had what he called a poor experience attempting to sing with a barbershop group.
Fast forward a few decades, a move to the Pittsburgh area and his retirement, and a friend asked if he’d like to give it another try here.
“‘OK,’” he replied, “maybe I’ll get a different perspective. And I did. I wish he’d have asked me earlier.”
Fast forward another quarter of a century, and Schaughency continues to sing with the Pittsburgh South Hills Keystone Chorus. And at age 97 – his birthday is in September – the resident of Providence Point in Scott Township isn’t the only nonagenarian in the group.
Mt. Lebanon resident George Fritsch, who will turn 93 in August, still makes it a point to be at chorus rehearsal at 7:30 p.m. each Tuesday at Hamilton Presbyterian Church in Bethel Park.
He has been interested in barbershop singing since hearing a quartet’s a cappella version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” on the boardwalk during a family trip to the beach, followed years later by his own harmonizing experience with an ad hoc group of shipmates during an Alaskan cruise.
“We sang ‘My Wild Irish Rose,’” he recalled, “and we won the talent night.”
With the Keystone Chorus, founded as a chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, the elder statesmen’s voices blend with those of gentleman of a diverse age range. Music director Brandon Rauch, for example, is 27.
In between are vocalists with varying degrees of previous experience.
“My musical background consists of singing with the boys’ choir at my Catholic church and taking a year’s worth of piano lessons when I was a kid. That’s everything I ever did musically until I joined this group,” said Ken Dobbins, Keystone Chorus president. “And I think that’s pretty common in our group.”
Assistant director Ken Williams, on the other hand, comes from a musical family and studied clarinet in college. He has been singing barbershop for 37 years.
“I was a little hesitant, but darn it, I loved the harmony and the a cappella. So I came back, and I got sucked in very quickly when they started doing tags with me,” he recalled, describing the dramatic, often drawn-out codas to barbershop-style songs.
And he said that’s a good way to learn how to harmonize.
“It really makes you listen to what’s going on around you. Otherwise, you’re so busy working on your own part, you don’t hear whether you’re fitting in or not,” Williams said.
In regards to fitting in, that’s exactly how the men of the Keystone Chorus want one another – prospective members, too – to feel.
“Everybody supports everyone,” secretary Temp Smith said. “Nobody gets on top of anyone if he misses a note. We all try to help each other. It’s not a contest to see who’s the best.”
Members who read music help those who don’t. And practice songs available through the group’s website help each vocalist learn his part within the four in barbershop harmony: tenor, lead, baritone and bass.
Group rehearsals feature plenty of warmup before the harmonizing starts, including breathing exercises.
“As somebody once said, we’ve been breathing our whole life, but we’ve been doing the wrong kind of breathing. It’s natural to breathe, but to breathe for singing is a little bit different.” said Robert Seeger, vice president of membership.
The Keystone Chorus, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2018, continues to welcome new members. Ron Hirt of Bridgeville and Chris Kavell of South Fayette Township are among those who joined fairly recently.
In Hirt’s case, he learned about the group when he started singing in the choir at Holy Child Church in his home borough.
“The first time I sat down in the bass section, sitting beside me was one of the members,” he recalled. “He says to me, ‘Do you like barbershop?’ And I says, ‘To go to the barbershop?’”
Stan Kleja, the chorus’ immediate past president, clarified, and Hirt eventually took him up on an invitation for a Tuesday night.
“I thought, hey, I’m going to try it. And I was hooked,” he said. “Great bunch of people.
For Kavell, it also was a matter of knowing a member.
“Temp gets an A for persistence,” Kavell said about Smith. “I went, and I was pleasantly surprised. Actually, the hesitancy I had was a little bit of intimidation, because these guys had been doing this for a while.”
But he found he fit right in, as did the Keystone Chorus’ nonperforming public relations person: Seeger’s wife, Carole Panno.
“I was sort of a naysayer,” she recalled. “Bob said, ‘Oh, I got this thing in the mail. I want to do this.’ And I said, ‘You’re crazy. We have one car. We don’t live near there.’”
When she visited, though, she decided to get involved, herself.
“I was so impressed with the community and the guys and the sound,” she said. “So that’s why I’m out there now pounding the pavement, trying to get them new gigs and everything. I think it’s so great.”
The chorus’ schedule includes performances at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at Bethel Park Community Center as part of the Dean Streator Tower Concert Series, and at 7 p.m. Oct. 12 at Boyce Middle School in Upper St. Clair for the group’s annual show, which this year highlights the music of Bing Crosby.
In the meantime, the men continue their practice of singing for appreciative audiences at retirement communities and similar venues.
“The part that makes it worth it for me is when those people look up at you, and they’re singing along,” Hirt said. “And they thank you. They’re so happy that you’ve come into their home.”
For more information about Pittsburgh South Hills Keystone Chorus, visit www.pghkeystonechorus.com.