Rooted in Craig, barbershop chorus makes waves near and far
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Yampa Valley Chorus, now performing as Bella Voce, a barbershop singing group that over the years has changed and grown to gain members from all over the region.
The Bella Voce Chorus, co-directed by Craig resident Jeana Womble, competed at Sweet Adelines International Rocky Mountain Regional Conference in Rapid City, South Dakota, in early May. It was the first time Bella Voce has been able to compete in person since 2019, and the hard work they’ve put in during the pandemic paid off.
“That was really exciting,” Womble said. “Everyone was really motivated and really excited to perform after three years.”
As Sweet Adelines International is making its way back to meeting in person after the pandemic, about half of the regions this year did their competitions virtually where each chorus sent a video in for judging.
“We were just grateful to be able to do it in person,” Womble said. “Everyone was feeling each other out. There was a new chorus that had been formed, and we had no idea how they were going to do.”
Considered a small chorus under Sweet Adelines International rules, Bella Voce earned first place in the small chorus division and finished second overall in the region against mid and large-sized choruses.
“We sang and got a wonderful response from the audience and the judges,” Womble said. “We were hoping to score above 600, but we got 591.”
That was the highest score the group has ever received, beating the chorus’ score of 574 in 2018. Womble said the group has continued to improve over the years and almost secured the first-place designation for the whole region.
The Rocky Mountain Region covers choruses east to west from Lexington, Nebraska, to Idaho Falls, Idaho, and north to south from Billings, Montana, to Colorado Springs. Womble said Bella Voce often gets compliments from judges and other directors for their unique group format.
Bella Voce has members spanning from the Front Range to Salt Lake City. The group meets four weekends per year for in-person rehearsals, while the rest of their practices and preparations take place remotely.
While other choruses focus more on entertainment and performing, Bella Voce is a competition chorus. Womble said that’s the tradeoff for conducting their chorus under this format.
“It’s a hard thing that we do to ask the chorus members to imagine practicing with the whole group while they are practicing at home between rehearsals,” Womble said.
Each chorus gets to choose how they are set up and how they rehearse. Womble and co-director Anna-Lisa Glad of Salt Lake City both work hard throughout the year to produce rehearsal materials for members to practice at home.
Glad makes videos with choreography and movement to go along with each song, and Womble makes videos of how she will direct each piece. The benefit of co-directing is that both Glad and Womble still get opportunities to perform with the rest of the group.
Womble doesn’t have a professional background in music or directing. She came into the world of barbershop choruses with a lifelong appreciation for music, starting with choir and theater in high school.
“I wanted to get into a vocal performance major in college, but it ended up not working out,” Womble said, “I played piano for many years. I was self-taught and did as much as I could throughout the years.”
Womble spent several years focusing on raising her family with her husband as he went through several years of medical school and residency. The couple chose to move to Craig and establish life here.
“I really craved and needed singing — music in general, but mostly singing,” Womble said.
When Womble first came to Craig, she asked around and the Yampa Valley Chorus was the only group that was performing in the area other than church choirs. The director at the time was in her last year.
The group went through a couple of directors, and in 2013, with the group not where they wanted to be, Womble took over leadership.
“I felt kind of pushed into it, but that’s what needed to happen,” Womble recalled. “I worked really hard, and we didn’t have many people, so we had to work really hard to build it back up.”
As the group worked to get better, interest in the local area went down. The Yampa Valley Chorus had always been more of a community hobby group, and the group had trouble finding people who were willing to work hard and strive to be really good.
“If we are going to do this, let’s do a really good job and sing at a really high level because that to me is what makes it fun,” Womble said.
It took a long time for Womble to learn how to be a director, develop her ear and learn how to teach people. But in the end, she said, it was an exciting and rewarding ride. Then the group started winning.
A couple of years into directing the chorus, Womble met Glad. That was a critical point for the group with membership waning once again and not enough people to perform on stage.
Glad had skills in movement and choreography, and together the directors started to be creative in how they led the chorus. The group rehearsed several weeks throughout the year and had members from the Front Range who joined.
Once the group started gaining momentum, more people wanted to join. That’s how the Yampa Valley Chorus was transformed into the Bella Voce group with members coming from Salt Lake to Denver.
Glad and Womble decided the group would meet four weekends per year, with an additional weekend for competition. Because Craig is centrally located, two of the weekends are in Craig with the other two split between Salt Lake and Denver.
Bella Voce is the only chorus in Sweet Adelines International that works together remotely to this degree. Because the success of the group relies on each of the members learning the music independently, they are big on personal responsibility.
“If you are self-motivated enough, it’s possible,” Womble said. “We have some members who are very talented and sing at a very high level, and they don’t have to spend as much time practicing on their own. We have other members who need more practice time to master it. We love all of our members.”
There are a lot of ways the directors provide support for the members. Womble spends time developing in-depth learning tracks with breath patterns so members can practice. Womble also sends out tracks with breakdowns for each part as singles, duets and dominant parts.
“That’s an important part of practice is to learn how your part fits with the other parts and to learn the variation,” Womble said.
Aside from the basic words and notes for each song, there are many stylistic elements to learn. Womble explained the barbershop style is very smooth and vowel driven. It’s meant to flow together. Otherwise, it sounds like there is white space without instrumental accompaniment.
“I will spend time with them over the phone,” Womble said. “We might be 500 miles apart, but we can get a lot done over the phone.”
The remote format works well for the higher level members who don’t need as much hands-on instruction for the more basic elements of the pieces.
“Now, me as a director, I have a lot of patience for the members who are working really hard but not getting it as quickly,” Womble said. “It’s very exciting to see the growth there.”
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