(14 Dec., 2008) Milt Rainey, conductor of the
Suburbanaires, is about to introduce the next song the senior men’s
barbershop chorus will perform in their afternoon concert for the
folks at Rouge Valley Retirement Residence. Long-time chorus member
Jack Kalbfleisch suddenly bursts through the front row.
“Milt,” he announces, “there’s news
just in from Ottawa.”
“Oh, what’s that, Jack?” says Milt.
“The Nativity Scene has been
“Why’s that, Jack?”
“They couldn’t find three wise men.”
The residents and their guests, the
chorus, and this reporter from GuidingStar.ca, enjoyed a good
laugh. Had I heard that joke before? Well, probably I had, maybe
more than once. But it didn’t matter. These gentlemen bring a
freshness to everything they do. Good humour, and old favourite
songs beautifully harmonized, brought smiles, laughter and applause
from a very appreciative audience during this one-hour sing-out on
I was even luckier, for I
the group’s regular Wednesday rehearsal earlier in the day at St.
Patrick’s Church on Highway 7 near Markham Road.
steering committee leader Willard Watt sat down with me over coffee
at his home
to provide some background.
The Suburbanaires were formed in 1990
through the initiative of Ross Sutherland. The group is geared to
seniors who want to sing barbershop but are not keen to take on the
pressures of the competitive circuit. At the outset, Suburbanaires
were required to be members of the Barbershop Society. Now, to ease
recruitment of new members, this requirement has been dropped, thus
eliminating the need to pay membership fees to both the chorus and
the Society. But you do have to be retired.
style? I asked Willard.
“A barbershop quartet, or a
barbershop chorus,” he explained, “would be tenor, lead, baritone
and bass. Your lead sings the melody line. Your bass is an octave
lower. Baritone would be a fifth above the bass, and the tenor
would be a third above the lead.”
If a person only has
a background in,
for example, singing in the church choir, will they be able to pick
“He’ll find his part,” Willard said. “It’s not a hard way of singing, it’s just different. You don’t
have the piano playing along beside you. The harmonies you make are
with your own voice and the man standing beside you.”
It was true. The closest thing to a
musical instrument I saw in use during the rehearsal and concert was
a pitch pipe.
The rehearsal for the whole chorus
began at noon, but at 11:00 a.m. most of the eight-man “quartet”,
that steps forward for a few songs every concert, were already
putting in some early practise on their own.
Sitting, or standing, around a large
table, they polished up some of their repertoire, including the
Beach Boys’ “In My Room”. Boy, that brought me back to high school
days, circa 1965!
“That was a little slow,” Willard
said, looking at Egon Pedersen.
Egon points to Carl Rainey.
“He was dragging me down,” Egon said.
And everyone laughed. These chaps
have been together for a long time and good-natured teasing is all
part of the fun.
After the group had adjourned to
await the beginning of the main rehearsal in the assembly hall,
chorus director Milt Rainey stayed behind to chat with me. A
retired elementary school teacher, Milt has been a member of the
Suburbanaires since 1997 and its conductor for the last eight.
Born into a farming family that loved
to sing, Milt grew up near Orono, Durham county. Now living in
Whitby, he joined the Barbershop Society in 1980 and got involved in
an Oshawa barbershop chorus called the Oshawa Horseless Carriagemen
and, in fact, still is.
Milt estimates about two-thirds of
the members of the Suburbanaires live in Markham, with the rest
coming in from such places as Scarborough, Sutton, Whitby, Port
Perry, Richmond Hill, Newmarket, Oshawa and even as far away as
I asked him about the evident
camaraderie that exists among the members of the chorus.
“Music is our reason for being here,”
he said. “But some days music isn’t the only thing that happens.”
The health and well being of members
is often foremost in their minds and, sadly, the passing on of
friends has to be dealt with from time to time. The age range in
the choir is from the low sixties to the high eighties. In fact,
the honour of being the oldest member of the chorus falls to Ross
Gilbert at 89.
But it was almost twelve o’clock now
and Milt had over thirty men gathered in the assembly hall waiting
to get started.
A harmonized refrain of “Good
Wednesday to You” got everybody into the spirit. Des Goodley
stepped forward to put the members through some vocal warm-ups and
even had them on their feet for some stretching exercises.
“Now,” he said, “what else can I do
“Can we sit down now?” John Gower
asked in a mock plaintive voice.
There were songs to practise for the
afternoon concert but first it was time to share news.
Willard Watt thanked everyone who had
attended the recent funeral of John Parker, a Suburbanaire who
passed away at the age of 86. The group had performed three songs
at the memorial service.
“I think we gave John a good send off,”
That led Bob
Burrell to share his current
reading, a book about the World War II Burma Road campaign, battles
in which the British-born departed member had fought.
Birthday acknowledgements were next and
More was invited to stand while his buddies serenaded him with Happy
Birthday in, you guessed it, four-part harmony.
Now it was Milt’s turn to put the
boys through their paces, fine-tuning such old greats as “Let’s Get
Together Again”, “There’ll Be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of
Dover”, “They All Call It Canada, But I Call It Home” and “Sweet
Lunch break was at one o’clock and
everybody found their favourite spot to sit, relax, munch and chat.
Not for too long, though, for it was soon time to button up and
start heading for the Rouge Valley Retirement Residence at 16th
Avenue and Markham Road.
On the way, I mentioned to Willard
how touched I had been by the discussion of the life of John
Parker. It had often happened, he explained, that the chorus only
learned about some of the interesting past of a member at his
funeral. For this reason, the group has started a new segment at
their Wednesday rehearsals (the ones not followed by a concert) when
one current member is highlighted and invited to talk about his
At Rouge Valley Retirement Residence,
we were met by Mary Charbonneau and a large audience waiting in the
After some great tunes, much enjoyed
by the residents and their guests, the men then fanned out into the
room to lead in the singing of some popular Christmas songs.
When they reassembled at the front, a chorus
member had a question for Milt.
“Can we play one more song?”
“I suppose we could,” Milt says.
“Well, what song should it be?” another asks.
They played ... “One More Song”. You had to
Entertaining seniors is a big part of
what the Suburbanaires do. But they have a serious side too.
Having many veterans among their members past and present, the
chorus performs every year in the Remembrance Day program held at
Markham Theatre and this past November 11 was no exception.
The chorus contributes to the
community in many other ways as well. Every year they present a
bursary to a student at Markham District Secondary School who will
be going on to study music.
The chorus also established the Nolan
Fund in memory of the grandson of choir director Milt Rainey. At
the age of eighteen months, Nolan was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma
cancer, an illness that he eventually succumbed to. The members,
through their weekly coin collections at rehearsal, were able to
cover the family’s daily parking costs at the Hospital for Sick
Children. The fund has continued and is used to help families with
a special need.
Suburbanaire Patrick Adams makes a
unique contribution to the effort by collecting beer cans and
bottles, and wine and liquor bottles from the blue containers behind
the “Village at the Pines” complex and turning
them into cash which he donates to the Nolan Fund.
Cecil McBeth contacted Markville
Shopping Centre and was able to convert coins tossed into the mall’s
indoor wishing brook into funds for the Suburbanaires’ charitable
Back at Rouge Valley Retirement
Residence, “One More Song” was followed by one more song. A
beautiful and heartfelt rendition of “Let’s Get Together Again”
summed up the feelings of both the chorus and the audience.
After a refreshment courtesy of Rouge
Valley, the gentlemen of the Suburbanaires said goodbye. It was
time to head for home.
But next Wednesday they’ll be together again
at St. Patrick’s Church for their noon rehearsal cum Christmas
There are other special events built
into the Suburbanaires’ ten-month season. In September, they kick
things off with a corn roast, with wives and guests also invited.
February blahs are broken by the annual ladies’ lunch, and a picnic
at the end of June marks the summer recess. But the members take
the greatest pride in attending rehearsal every Wednesday.
“In fact,” Willard Watt laughingly
told me, “the wives have often been known to ask if we could have
extra practices during the week ‘so we can get the old buggers out
of the house’.”
As you can see, these fellows have a
great sense of humour.
They also have heart.
And can they ever sing!