Sing it out

Published 10:35 pm Thursday, August 7, 2008

Melea Tompkins and Gwen Alexander of Clanton have something in common, but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at them.

They like to sing. They also like to dance in sequined outfits, but mostly what they do is harmonize – without any musical accompaniment but the voices of Harmony Hills Chorus, a women’s barbershop style group.

That’s right, barbershop. For those unfamiliar with the term, the barbershop sound consists of four-part a cappella harmony.

“I started it in self defense,” explains Tompkins, whose husband, Jimmy, has been a barbershop vocalist since high school.

Tompkins is a baritone in Harmony Hills, a Birmingham-based chorus that is part of Sweet Adelines International, a nonprofit women’s music education organization dedicated to promoting the barbershop singing style.

Currently, Harmony Hills are the reigning Small Chorus Champions in Region 23 of Sweet Adelines International. This past March in Chattanooga, Tenn., they placed first in the small chorus division for the second consecutive year and placed fourth among all competing choruses.

After all contests in all regions were completed this year, Harmony Hills’ scores placed us in the Top 10 of all small choruses internationally.

“That’s an achievement we’re proud of,” Tompkins says.

Tompkins joined Sweet Adelines in 1993 and is a former member of Song of Atlanta. She was already familiar with the Birmingham chorus when the Tompkins moved to Clanton in March 2007. When they found permanent housing in the area, she found time to attend rehearsals this past February.

“Because of children and various family circumstances, at times I have been an active member, and at other times I have held non-singing roles,” she explained.

Her singing background reaches deeper than adulthood, however. Tompkins grew up singing in a good, solid high school chorus program.

But what she wants people to realize about Sweet Adelines is that you don’t have to be an expert singer to join.

“It’s something you can prepare for and get through without major stress,” she said. “They provide learning tapes and CDs, as well as educational opportunities throughout the year.”

Alexander, a tenor, has been a member of Harmony Hills for much longer. Her daughter, Jessica LaBelle, sings in a Houston, Texas chorus.

“It’s a wonderful organization because you can have friends throughout the country,” Alexander said. “It’s very empowering. You learn leadership as well as music skills.”

The women say they enjoy a camaraderie that is difficult to match in any other atmosphere.

“It’s real women, real harmony and real fun. To me that describes the Sweet Adelines experience,” Tompkins said. “Barbershop is a truly unique American art form.”