By Jill Devine
It seems just about everyone likes a good cry — especially if it’s motivated by a moving message of love.
“We walked into a cookie shop in Purcellville and started singing to the designated person — the target,” Bob Arbetter said. “She was so moved by the presentation. We sang two songs to her, and she immediately burst into tears. That caused two others on the staff to burst into tears, and we had a hard time getting through [the songs] ourselves.”
Such are the pitfalls of being a performer in a barbershop quartet, or a bigger group sometimes known as a barbershop chorus. You never know what response you are going to get.
“You get a variety of reactions depending on the nature of the relationship,” Arbetter said. “Singing valentines has such an emotional impact on the recipient.”
Encountering a barbershop quartet is a bit like spotting a shooting star — it’s an unexpected treat that beckons passersby to pause and watch. Pressing matters slide away as a group of cheerful, jauntily dressed gentlemen (and sometimes gentlewomen) croon zippy tunes in four-part harmony.
Arbetter, 67, is a systems engineer who lives along the banks of the Goose Creek in Ashburn. He moonlights as a member of the Old Dominion Chorus, a Leesburg-based group with members from around the area, including Ashburn.
He’s joined by fellow member Terry Moore. The Loudoun Valley Estates resident is a senior analyst with the Department of Defense who joined the chorus in early 2021 to break the monotony of the pandemic.
“I liked that [the chorus] was meeting in person by social distancing in a member’s backyard, because I refuse to sing using Zoom or other apps,” said Moore, 57.
The Old Dominion Chorus has been serenading sweethearts on the streets of Loudoun County since 2002 — as well as in shops, offices, homes and anywhere else there is an audience. The chorus is a chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, which has more than 20,000 members in about 700 chapters across the United States and Canada.
The local chorus has nearly 30 members. The group practices weekly for annual concerts, regional and national competitions, community and youth outreach events and private parties. But things really start hopping in February during their biggest annual fundraiser when they deliver singing valentines to blushing recipients.
“For $50, we sing a song, give a rose and deliver a note anywhere in the area,” said chapter president Ron Baker, a retired electrical engineer who lives in Sterling. “The lady at the office gets a personal love song from her husband, she cries, everyone around her smiles and claps and then we go on our way.”
An American musical tradition dating back to the early 1900s, barbershop quartets historically consist of four males singing in close harmony, unaccompanied by instruments (known as “a cappella”). There are four parts — lead, tenor, bass and baritone. The chorus welcomes women singers, but none has joined so far. However, the group does have a female director.
Baker says the chorus is named for the former Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, now a trail park running through Loudoun that roughly defines the area where most members live. The group includes bankers, real estate agents and even a pastor, but Baker noted that many members are engineers.
“Maybe it’s the mathematical nature of music that attracts them,” he said. “A lot of us are retired. It’s a matter of having time for rehearsals and learning the music, so we have fewer members with young kids.”
While the membership of the Old Dominion Chorus may skew older, plenty of members are in their 40s and younger — and all the way down to a teenager, believe it or not.
“I found out about [the chorus] through my church, and I just fell in love with it,” said 15-year-old Joey Cotsimopoulous from Lansdowne. He’s been singing with the chorus for a year.
“I guess I’m not typical for kids my age, but I don’t mind being the youngest one,” he said.
The blend of ages has benefits that go beyond the purely musical. In addition to being a chorus member and an engineer, Arbetter is also a certified health coach with a doctorate in nutrition.
“There is absolutely a health benefit from the camaraderie amongst the chorus members,” Arbetter said. “For some of our [older] members, there are health benefits from both the physical and mental perspective. One of our members… said it’s the thing that keeps him going.”
“Barbershop is just a unique style of music — the sound, the harmonizing. It’s great being with a group of people that have the same goals and just really enjoy the music,” Moore said. “It’s my favorite hobby right now.”
Jill Devine is a freelance writer and former magazine editor from Loudoun County who writes for a variety of Virginia publications.