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The Suburbanaires entertain with songs and humour!

                                                                                             article and photos by Grant Weaver,

(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 cancelled.”

            “Why’s that, Jack?”

            “They couldn’t find three wise men.”

            The residents and their guests, the chorus, and this reporter from, 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 December 10.

Carl Rainey, Laurie Hart, Egon Rederson and Willard Watt

            I was even luckier, for I also attended the group’s regular Wednesday rehearsal earlier in the day at St. Patrick’s Church on Highway 7 near Markham Road. 

            But first, 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.

            What exactly is the barbershop 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 up barbershop?

Egon Pedersen and Eric Arthurs            “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 Lindsay. 

            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 to you?”

            “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,” Willard said.

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 Tom 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 Adeline”.

            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 life.

Outreach Director Mary Charbonneau with the Suburbanaires            At Rouge Valley Retirement Residence, we were met by Mary Charbonneau and a large audience waiting in the dining room.

            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 be there.

            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.Jim Crichton, Cecil McBeth and Doug Threndyle

            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 work.

            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 dinner. 

            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!

Art Seymour, John Gower, and Ed Postma Keith Hood and Bun Baker
Frank Judson, Dominicus Susilo, Al Vetter and Des Goodley Harry Carter and Grant More
Ted Blood, Bob Burrell, Ron Butt and John Rybuck  Jack Beattie, Ted Blood and Frank Judson
 Murray Jelley, Dominicus Susilo and Norm Hamel  

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