Barbershop Cut-ups - Alumnus brings music and comedy into perfect harmony

By Chris Dunker (’08)

As a general rule, it’s impolite to snort and laugh at internationally recognized musicians performing Tchaikovsky. Even the harshest music critic generally stops short of laughing a group off the stage.

But, frankly, Storm Front had it coming. When the music group, led by Jim Clark (’96) of Aurora, Colo., sang at the Nebraska Choral Directors’ conference in Crete in July, they were asking for it. Within Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” set in the Siberian wilderness, the group told knock-knock jokes as anthropomorphic farmyard animals.Storm Front

That the music was flawless, and that Storm Front was the Barbershop Harmony Society Gold Medal International Quartet Champion in 2010, is almost beside the point when you’re struggling not to fall out of your chair with laughter.

Comedy, Clark said, is just another vehicle to bring music, specifically barbershop music, to the masses. “Some people really like heart-wrenching drama. Some people like toe-tapper jazzy songs. But there is virtually no one in the world who doesn’t like to laugh,” Clark said. “Laughing is universal.”

The Storm Front quartet includes three Nebraska natives (Clark as lead, baritone Darin Drown and bass Syd Libsack) and Canadian tenor Jeff Selano. The group splits its time between Atlanta and Denver, where Clark said the “long distance quartet” often develops new material, rehearses and performs all on the same weekend.Jim Clark (’96) leads the mayhem for Storm Front.

“Fifteen months before the 2010 competition, we did this ridiculous schedule of Friday to Sunday marathons where we were practicing four or five hours in the morning, doing a show in the afternoon, rehearsing in the evening, doing a show that night and then going out to do all the after-show things,” Clark said. “Then we’d get up and do it all over again on Sunday.”

Those life-shortening weekends worked. Storm Front cracked the top five at the 2009 Barbershop Harmony Society quartet contest before claiming the championship in 2010.

“We looked at the competition in 2010 and said if we really worked on some specific things we could win. And we did,” Clark said.

They continue to perform regularly together, like their fathers did for 35 years in the Scottsbluff quartet, the Sugar Valley Singers. They develop new material, try new schticks, and, most of all, do just about anything to make one another laugh.

“That’s one of my not-so-secret goals,” Clark explained. “Even in our contests from 2008, 2009 and 2010, I tell the guys, ‘Just beware, even though we are here competing, just be ready that something’s not going to be the same.”

The barnyard animals as Tchaikovsky ballet characters were one of the gags that came about through messing around after a show in Honolulu on a car ride back to the hotel in 2010. One member started talking in a funny animal voice, and the bit just kind of developed organically, Clark recalled.

He cited the haphazard skits of “The Carol Burnett Show” as inspiration to make his fellow Storm Front partners laugh on stage.

“Sometimes, something so out of left field happens that we lose it and we’re laughing for a while. But that’s more like a gift as opposed to a problem,” he said. “You have to have a comfort level that no matter what happens, you’re not going to be shaken from it.”

It takes a certain confidence to be comfortable with chaos. Clark attributes his confidence to his time in Old Main studying humanities. At Nebraska Wesleyan, he gained “the initial boost to open your mind and think critically and approach every situation with a broader perspective.” That boost has informed everything from his career in the financial world to his persona on stage with Storm Front.

“Having an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in English helps me become a better communicator and writer. And, working in a group situation, you really take those things to heart and you realize those skill sets can be used across the board,” Clark said.

Music education major Jordan Zimmerman (’13) of Council Bluffs, Iowa, has developed a similar confidence at NWU, and has used it to form the barbershop quartet, Shades of Blue, with Eric Wyler (’13) of Gretna, Neb., Cao Nguyen (’14) of Lincoln, and Robert Lighthall (’14) of Aurora, Colo. Zimmerman said NWU has been supportive of his decision to explore barbershop harmony—even as their group failed initially.

“We tried to start a quartet in 2010 after I transferred to Wesleyan, but it just didn’t work,” Zimmerman said. “We decided to try it again with singing Valentines in February 2011, and it kind of took off.”

Since then, Shades of Blue has performed at the Wesleyan Honors Festival and various alumni functions. They gave their rendition of the Wesleyan Hymn at the Old Main Cornerstone Ceremony marking the university’s 125th anniversary on September 20.Launched by current students, Shades of Blue has been a hit on and off campus.

“Ever since we formed, we get tons of support from the faculty. Some of them have even said they know people who might have a gig for us,” Zimmerman said. “Alumni have been extremely supportive, too, and we enjoy singing for them.”

Zimmerman said he hopes the renewed barbershop tradition at NWU will spur more to try the genre in the future, even after he and Wyler and the other members of Shades of Blue graduate. “We do it for fun, but we would love to see another quartet come from our efforts, and we are keeping an eye on the freshmen and sophomores,” he said.

And for Clark, the goal is to spread a passion for music wherever Storm Front blows them and however they can reach the audience. “It doesn’t matter what the draw is so long as we get them interested,” he explained.

“Active participation in music is becoming more and more rare,” he continued. “Music in the last 50 years has become something of a spectator sport. It’s a niche thing where everyone says, ‘I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument.’”

Clark is serious about the joy he finds in music. That seriousness shines through what he called “all the stupid stuff” Storm Front weaves into performances. In some ways, that seriousness sinks in all the more because of the “stupid stuff.” If you’re willing to bleat like a goat to help people enjoy Tchaikovsky, you must be serious indeed.

See videos of Storm Front in action at stormfrontquartet.com.