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Fraternity of Harmony

The Soundworks chorus is busy getting vocal.

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You think you've got it hard? Try rehearsing harmonies for an a cappella troupe while you're driving an armored Humvee on a top-secret mission in northern Iraq. That's hard.

“It's one thing to be singing in your car and you're at a stoplight and the people are looking at you. It's another thing to be doing it in a large Humvee in a combat zone rattling along — a dirt road,” says Bill Eadie, an intelligence defense contractor who is also a member of Soundworks, the Virginia men's a cappella ensemble that is the reigning, five-time consecutive state champ of the Barbershop Harmony Society.

In a world where the cast of TV's subversive hit show “Glee” recently toppled the Beatles' record for the most Billboard Hot 100 singles, that kind of dedication to a men's choir isn't surprising. Who could have foreseen a cultural shift in which show tunes and campy musical arrangements of rock standards supplant good old fashioned, trashy rock 'n' roll? Instead of sporting battered leather jackets and cranking it up to 11 in noisy garage bands, fresh-faced teens may well be donning sensible sweaters and forming finger-snapping, swaying-and-bopping choirs and quartets.

That's the world that Soundworks wants to help create. 

On Oct. 23, Soundworks will present “An Evening of A Cappella” at First Unitarian Church, 1000 Blanton Ave., performing with two college men's choirs: the Octaves from the University of Richmond and the Gentlemen of the College from the College of William and Mary.

Soundworks' members hope to inspire the younger men to join their group or similar choruses and continue singing for fun after college. Many of the men in Soundworks are former members of church choirs, or high school and college choruses and glee clubs.

With the friendly enthusiasm of a thousand I'd-Like-To-Buy-The-World-A-Coke commercials, Soundworks founder and president Paul Laurenz praises the fellowship engendered by song. “If you're singing with somebody, you can't be fighting with them,” he says. “When people talk about world harmony or peace and harmony, it's a real, true, physical thing.”

A business analyst and fundraiser for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Foundation, Laurenz founded Soundworks in his Richmond garage in 2003. It has grown from a quartet into a 47-member, nonprofit, volunteer chorus with a statewide membership in places such as Fredericksburg, Virginia Beach and Lynchburg. Ranging in ages from 23 to 70-something, they come from all walks of life, including physicians, computer guys and a golf course groundskeeper. Their new musical director, Nick Brata, teaches middle school choir at St. Christopher's. One member, Glenn Van Tuyle, a retired Medical College of Virginia professor with a doctorate in biochemistry, just began singing in recent years.

Soundworks is a true democracy. Members take turns leading the group in rehearsals and they perform without a conductor, creating relaxed, friendly shows. “Many groups out there … you see the butt of the guy with the baton primarily,” group member Rick Montgomery says, laughing. “We wanted to eliminate that wall. It makes us really different.” 

The group's repertoire shows a wide range — you'll find barbershop standards, Tin Pan Alley favorites, sea chanteys, ballads, traditional songs such as “Scarborough Fair,” soaring religious fare like “Ave Maria,” even country music and Beatles tunes. “We do jazz, classical, doo-wop, country, gospel, anything,” Laurenz says. “It's all about the music.”

Eadie, the defense contractor, recently returned to his home in Charlottesville after a six-month stint in Iraq “working on the roadside bomb problem.” He was just in time to make the group's last rehearsal before the group's Mid-Atlantic District competition in Pennsylvania. (Soundworks came in fifth out of 22 choirs from the East Coast.)

Eadie literally hadn't missed a beat — his voice blended seamlessly into the choir of about 20 men singing at Soundworks' regular weekly practice at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Chesterfield County.  Despite being unable to practice with the choir in person for half a year, Eadie faithfully kept up with the ensemble's varied repertoire by singing along with MP3s and videos from Soundworks' website. It's how all the members learn their parts.

When he showed up at practice, he was instantly surrounded by backslapping, hugging, handshaking friends. The Soundworks guys are like “brothers in a fraternity,” Eadie says. “We have a lot of fun sharing each others' company.”

“We're a group of men and we love singing together,” Van Tuyle says. “There's so little out there to encourage young men to do these kinds of things, which really can be a joy for the rest of your life.” S

For information about tickets to the Oct. 23 performance at First Unitarian Church and on Soundworks, visit www.soundworkschorus.org.

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