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Profiles Harmonious Hobby

O It doesn’t matter that they aren’t standing on a stage or wearing their straw hats and red and white striped blazers, and that this is simply a Sunday evening practice. As the last notes of “Lida Rose” fade, it becomes clear that the sofa, coffee table, love seat and living room acoustics cannot hide the intricate harmonies and expressive faces of the four gentlemen blending their voices. Sound Unlimited is the quintessential barbershop quartet, and Don Hutchison ’73 is the quintessential lead.

Since 1998, Hutchison has been donning his hat and blending his voice with fellow Sound Unlimited members, Bill Gilchrist, Bob Focht and Charlie Lehman, all “very good musicians,” he says. Hutchison, a real estate agent for RE/MAX International, became involved when fellow members of the Reading Pretzel City Chorus asked if he’d be interested in forming a barbershop quartet. His “yes” has exposed him to a world full of costumes, competitions and good times.

Hutchison began singing barbershop-style music with the Pretzel City Chorus 21 years ago after going to a concert and finding that he liked the harmonies. But singing in a quartet is different. “You can’t lean on anybody else,” says Hutchison, “because you are the only one singing your part.” Barbershop quartets are composed of a tenor, lead, baritone and bass. Hutchison describes the lead as the singer who keeps everybody on track. “As lead, I have to stay in tune and remember the words,” he says, “because as goes the lead, so goes the entire quartet!” Although the other members of the group joke that Hutchison “gets all of the credit because he’s the lead,” he does have the big responsibility of maintaining Sound Unlimited’s reputation.

In addition to engagements at venues such as the Sovereign Center, First Energy Stadium and West Chester University, and annual shows with the Pretzel City Chorus, Hutchison and the other members of Sound Unlimited also compete in the Mid-Atlantic Western Division Competition. In 2002, the group placed sixth out of 20 competing quartets, which earned them an invitation to the Mid-Atlantic District Convention. The quartet members came home with something to boast about.

It was the first time in 40 years that a quartet from Reading had qualified to compete at districts. After this year’s division competition, their ranking was uncertain, and they were unsure if they would head to districts. When one of the top groups dropped out, the eighteenth space was freed. Sound Unlimited is excited about traveling to Wildwood, N.J., to compete. Adding some comedy, their competition routine includes a number in which Hutchison pretends to forget the words and displays antic gestures such as breaking his straw hat over his head. “We don’t stand a chance of winning, so we might as well entertain,” laughs Hutchison.

In order to stay in tune and on the ball, the group practices once a week, every week. Because they perform about once a month, it is important to have a varied repertoire and to be ready for every opportunity. The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) helps them prepare. “They have loads of songs and even offer show packages,” Hutchison says. The group might also ask other groups for arrangements of music. “We will listen to the champs at competitions and ask them for the arrangements,” Hutchison notes. Although the group doesn’t arrange their own music, they will definitely “tweak” it to their liking to fit their voices and their style.

And, of course, for different songs and themes there are different costumes! If they are singing more old-time songs they please audiences in their red and white striped blazers and straw hats, and for more modern shows they choose outfits accordingly. But they also have different sets of matching vests and ties that they wear with tuxedo pants, a dark blue shirt that they wear with yellow ties, and polo shirts with their names embroidered on them. Hutchison says, with a laugh, that although they perform a lot of Christmas shows, they do not generally wear their old-fashioned outfits…they too closely resemble candy canes, he notes.

Looking back on his college years, Hutchison vividly remembers when his fraternity, Alpha Pi Omega, sang a barbershop-style number at Song Fest after a Homecoming game. Different groups, such as fraternities, sororities and the choir, would prepare songs and perform them in front of a panel of judges and, of course, a huge audience. Hutchison’s group won the contest. “It was fun to beat the college choir,” he says.

Even though Hutchison’s involvement in barbershop music is different from when he and his fraternity brothers sang at Song Fest, the spirit is the same. The group has a good time together, as evidenced by jokes and gentle ribbings and the ease with which the four interact when singing. Hutchison humbly says, “We are not the world’s best singers, but we love to entertain!”

– Loren A. Morgan '05


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