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The hometown barbershop chorus that has struck a chord over the past 35 years

By Daniela Cado

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    MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin (WDJT) — Barbershop harmony is rooted in African American traditions of the late 1800s in the south. This type of storytelling through songs isn’t too common now-a-days but one local group has stayed active for the past 35 years, The Midwest Vocal Express.

Music has the power to connect us in ways we might not be able to explain, and for a performer, you can say that feeling is magnified.

“You get really wrapped up in the music, the message of the music,” said Dennis Monroe. “We have sung some music where I had to stop singing…and get back into the program because it gets to you.”

Monroe is part of the local group, and he sings bass.

“I grew up singing barbershop, my dad got me into it, I started when I was 9 years old,” said Bryan Ziegler, the musical director for the group.

The Midwest Vocal Express is Wisconsin’s premier men’s acapella chorus, founded in 1989.

“The Midwest Vocal Express received our charter from the Barbershop Harmony Society on the day I was born,” he added.

Ziegler said his father was one of the founding members who started the chorus group in the Milwaukee area. About 35 years ago today, they became an official chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, spanning across the U.S. and Canada.

The barbershop style really got its start back in the 1800s,” Ziegler explained. “The barbershop was a place for people to gather socially and somebody would start singing one of the popular tunes of the time, and other customers or barbers would start singing along and harmonizing with it.”

Barbershop quartets involve a lead singer — usually a tenor — who sings the melody, while a second tenor adds harmony above, a bass harmonizes below, and a baritone fills in the middle.

“When I get in front of an audience out on the stage with my quartet, it’s a different world… I almost feel like I become a different person, and I can have a ball with the people in the audience,” said Bill Kilbourne, a proud member who has been a part of the society for 54 years.

“I’ve been a tenor in the Easy Days Quartet for the last 15 years and when our baritone, due to health reasons had to resign from the quartet, I moved down to baritone,” he said.

Kilbourne said it’s not just the harmonies that strike a chord. It’s the lyrics that consume their entire being.

“For example, the ones that we do for Valentine’s Day: ‘let me call you sweetheart,’ that means something in English,” Kilbourne explained. “‘Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you,’ those are all words that bring out emotions and that’s what I do when I’m on the stage.”

Monroe told CBS 58 Sunday Morning he recalls the very first time he stepped onto the international stage in 1999.

“We probably were 50, 60 voices and we went out there and sung and it was electrifying,” he said.

The Midwest Vocal Express typically has two shows a year of which Ziegler helps select and arrange the music for.

“We love the feeling of, what we call, lock and ring,” Ziegler said. “When you hit a chord just right and you hear overtones above you and it’s just the coolest feeling.”

They are also called to perform at community functions and travel for competitions.

“My quartet won the World Championship in 2018,” Ziegler added.

The group has also done several outreach events at schools around the country to help bring back the arts.

Most recently, in the Fall of 2022, an all-voices chorus, called Forward Harmony, was established.

“I not only get to sing with my dad, but also my mom and my wife,” Ziegler said. “I always say barbershop has been the obsession of my lif;. I went to school for music, music is my career…I don’t know what I would be doing if, if, it weren’t for music.”

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