Kind Hearts and Quartets: Barbershop Singers Deliver Valentine’s Day Serenades in Upper Valley
Fourth-grade teacher Rhonda Bloom, chokes back a tear while listening to Let Me Call You Sweetheart, sung by barbershop quartet members (from left) Ernie Sargent, Frank Gould, Elmer Brown and Joseph Tofel at Haverhill Middle School yesterday morning. Giggling in the foreground are students Keatyn Horne, left, and Olivia Sarkis. Six quartets from the North Country Chordsmen delivered 90 performances yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Members of One Mode of Expression Barbershop Quartet prepare to deliver a singing valentine at Haverhill Middle School in North Haverhill yesterday. Ernie Sargent holds the chocolate, left, as Joseph Tofel selects a silk rose from a bunch wrapped in plastic, while Frank Gould explains why the quartet uses silk roses. “We used to use real roses,” Gould said, “but carrying them in the cold made them die quickly. Now we use silk flowers and they last forever.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Haverhill — A light-blue SUV drove the long, winding driveway and rolled to a stop in front of the Haverhill Cooperative Middle School yesterday. Out popped four men, ages 76 to 86, dressed to the nines in black tuxes with bright red bow ties and cummerbunds.
One grabbed a pitch pipe and another grabbed a rose. They were on a mission — a Valentine’s mission — as one of six barbershop quartets swarming the Upper Valley during the North Country Chordsmen’s annual “singing valentine” blitz. All told, the quartets delivered nearly 90 performances, the vast majority of them surprises — including the one they were about to deliver to unsuspecting fourth-grade teacher Rhonda Bloom, who had no idea that her fiance had arranged for the quartet to sing her a lovesong in her classroom.
Once in the building, the quartet paraded down the locker-lined hallway, evoking gasps, smiles and stares from students and teachers alike. “Hi!” one young student exclaimed. “Hi people!”
As the troupe turned the corner into the classroom at the end of the hall, a crowd began to gather in the doorway. Bloom turned and eyed the group suspiciously, clutching her hands to her chest.
“Oh, my, god,” she said, before they broke into a harmony of Let Me Call You Sweetheart.
“I turned around and I saw them and they said my name — it was a very big surprise,” Bloom said later, adding of her fiance: “I can’t wait to see him now.”
For the North Country Chordsmen, that’s part of the fun: the surprise element is “very important,” said lead Frank Gould, 76, of Lyme, and Valentine’s Day is particularly special, according to baritone Joe Tofel, 81, of Thetford.
“Never does anybody pay attention to what you’re singing as when you’re singing Valentines,” Tofel said.
Dan Falcone, the Chordsmen’s director who performed with a different quartet yesterday, agreed. He stood outside Dartmouth College’s Collis Student Center after his troupe surprised a student there.
“It can be a surprise for them, and it’s a surprise for you too because you don’t know what kind of situation you’re going into, whether it’s a new love or a 50-year anniversary kind of love, or even somebody who’s a secret admirer kind of thing,” said Falcone, 40, of Plainfield. “Those have been really interesting. Basically it’s just, how are they going to react?”
The Chordsmen, a barbershop harmony chorus singing a capella, has been performing singing valentines for 12 years, and about two-thirds of its nearly 40 members participated in yesterday’s deluge of valentine’s songs. For $50, people could arrange to surprise their friends and loved ones with a song, card, rose and candies delivered by one of the quartets, as well as a photo to commemorate the event.
Originally founded in Lebanon in the 1960s before moving to Hanover in 1978, the Chordsmen meet to practice once a week and perform year-round throughout the Upper Valley and in competitions, with members ranging in age from 16 to 86.
One of the founders and the Chordsmen’s oldest member, Elmer Brown, of Thetford, said after the performance for Bloom yesterday that Valentine’s Day performances have evoked tears “quite a few times” over the years.
“Sometimes they get crying so hard that you have a hard time keeping your composure,” he said.
Bloom used a tissue to dab her eyes throughout the performance. Another teacher, Tara Russ, called out to the schoolchildren: “Boys, are you taking notes?”
Nine-year-old student Matthew Perkins wasn’t taking notes, per se, but he was certainly paying attention: He’d never heard singing like that before, he said, but was happy for Bloom and enjoyed the performance.
“I’m like, how can they sing like that?” he said.
After departing Haverhill and stopping for a performance in Orford, the quartet — including Gould, Brown, Tofel and tenor Ernie Sargent — drove to the AVA Gallery in Lebanon to surprise painter Stephanie Reininger, who was teaching the last class of a six-week ILEAD water color course.
Gould, who was in the class but couldn’t attend because of the singing valentines, still wanted to surprise Reininger, who said she was “surprised and astounded” by the performance, asking her students if anybody had a spare tissue.
Gould’s fellow class members were moved by the performance, as well.
“Oh my god, I think it is so touching. ... To recognize her this way is just really lovely,” said class member Penny Johnson, of Strafford. “There’s not enough of this kind of thing anymore, you know?”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3220.