Melanie McGuire’s speaking voice is one that compels you to listen. Low and resonate, she can draw you in with just a word or two. It’s no surprise, then, that her singing voice is equally as commanding. It’s a voice she’s been using since she was a young child, singing songs and improvising harmonies in the car during long road trips with her family. It’s a voice she’s put to the test countless times, and it’s a voice that helped her quartet, Wink, beat out 30 other groups to win the Pacific Northwest Regional Competition of Sweet Adelines International in Spokane last May.
It’s been a journey of 23 years for McGuire to get to this point. Although she has been singing and harmonizing her whole life, she says her life changed the night a stranger approached her at a karaoke bar and asked if she’d ever considered singing barbershop. It was the tight harmonies that sold her on the idea, and she was hooked after her first visit to the Olympia Chorus.
Originally placed in the bass (lowest harmony) section, after just a few months in the chorus, McGuire was asked if she wanted to sing tenor (the high harmony part) in a quartet. Flattered, she jumped at the opportunity, and Songburst quartet was born. She continued doing double duty – bass in the chorus, tenor in the quartet – for about four years. Then a coach told her she’d never get any better if she didn’t focus on mastering one part. McGuire took that to heart and switched to tenor full time. She quickly became the tenor section leader for the chorus, too.
When the original lead (melody) singer of Songburst dropped out of the quartet, McGuire recruited a life-long friend, who had sung and harmonized with her all through their high school years in Montesano, to join both the chorus and the quartet. The deal was, the friend had to sing tenor because McGuire had decided it was time to try singing lead.
“I wasn’t a melody singer, ever,” she says. “Harmony came easily to me. Singing the lead line is a lot of responsibility.” Turns out she was a natural. Songburst went on to place as high as fifth regionally. Two additional fifth place quartet medals with different groups followed, and her last quartet, Nitelife, landed as high as fourth in 2013.
During this time, McGuire was also learning more about the barbershop art form. She enrolled in a Director Certification Program within the organization and is now an assistant director of the Olympia Chorus. A few years ago she was approached about directing the Puget Sounders, a men’s group affiliated with the Barbershop Harmony Society, located here in Olympia. “I had been coaching them and their quartets on stage presence and sound,” she says. Directing her own group was the next logical step in learning more about the type of singing she had come to love.
Still, that elusive first place quartet medal seemed more and more like a pipe dream. “In 2013, my mom was very ill. Near the middle of the year a member of Nitelife had to leave for Florida, and another (member) needed to take care of her extended family, so we broke up. A month later, my mom passed away, and I decided I was done with quartetting. I was burned out, and my grief was such that I just couldn’t sing anymore.”
The one thing she wasn’t expecting was that other members of the barbershopping community had been paying attention, watching her grow, and were just waiting for an opening. “I believe my mom had something to do with that,” she says with a grin.
Before long she was singing with Anna Chamberlain, a baritone who has won multiple regional titles and performed in the top ten at the international level in two different quartets, and Kay Keating, a tenor who has also sung in the top ten at international. Last February, they added bass, Susan Kegley, who has sung on the international stage in all four voice parts and who won the coveted International gold medal with her quartet a Cappella Gold in 2001.
“I couldn’t believe Susan Kegley called me! She wanted to audition for my quartet? It was surreal,” says McGuire. “After she joined, I realized I was the least ‘credentialed’ member. It took a few weeks to get past it and realize, oh yeah. I do know some stuff!”
“This organization has afforded me the most incredibly amazing opportunities,” says McGuire. Her chorus has traveled to Europe to perform, and a few years ago, they sang at Carnegie Hall. “But winning this,” she says, holding up her gold medal, “blows all of that out of the water.” When pressed as to why, her answer is short and sweet, “I worked for it.” Twenty-three years’ worth of work – taking voice lessons, receiving coaching, coaching others, directing, learning countless songs and massaging each word and phrase until it’s in perfect synch with her quartet mates.
“Besides giving birth to my two incredible sons, winning first place at regional was the most amazing experience of my life. For a long time, I didn’t think it would ever happen. But now I know that anything is possible. Now that I’ve passed that hurdle, my mantra is ‘why not?’ Why not make the top 10 at International? Why not go for the gold?”
Wink Quartet moves on to compete against 47 other quartets from around the world at the Sweet Adelines International Competition in Las Vegas this October. “I’m so looking forward to being on the other side of it,” says McGuire. “I’ve been to International a couple of times as a spectator, but this time I’ll be behind the scenes, meeting people I’ve admired for decades. It’s really kind of overwhelming.”
“Competition is an evaluation, a chance to show improvement, to see where you started and where you need to go. You have no control over who scores better than you do; you just have to do your best. It’s an opportunity to perform to the best of your ability and give the audience an opportunity to share in the experience. Getting rewarded for doing that well is the icing.” Pretty delicious icing!
The Sweet Adelines International Competition will be available on a free webcast starting on October 18, 2016. Wink is scheduled to compete on Wednesday at approximately 8:15 p.m.
For women in Thurston County who are interested in a cappella harmony singing, The Olympia Sweet Adelines rehearse on Tuesday nights from 6:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m., at the Eastside Community Center, 618 Puget St. in Olympia.
Men who are interested are invited to visit the Puget Sounders on Monday nights starting at 6:30 p.m., at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 1601 North Street SE in Olympia.