Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography Courtesy of Scottsdale Chorus
For the past six decades, Scottsdale Chorus has been changing the world’s perception of barbershop music.
“Many people think of the guys with straw hats, armbands and striped vests,” says Lori Lyford, Scottsdale Chorus’ musical director. “The impression is that it is old fashioned. But we do not sing old fashioned music. We sing energetic music and some really passionate ballads. We even use vocal percussion. So I think that our group will really surprise people who have never seen it.”
Chartered in 1962, Scottsdale Chorus is a group of about 100 energetic women who are passionate about performing four-part harmony, barbershop-style music. Its members range in age from their teens to their 90s and come from a wide variety of backgrounds and lifestyles.
“We have a great span of ages, backgrounds and education levels,” says Lyford, noting that Scottsdale Chorus’ membership includes students, teachers, retirees, lawyers and people in the health profession. “We have a lot of people in the chorus who are music teachers and then we have some people in the chorus who do not even read music. We all pull together to have really great performances.”
So great, in fact, that Scottsdale Chorus has won six first-place championships through Sweet Adelines International.
At the leading edge of excellence in music and leadership education, Sweet Adelines International has been dedicated to preserving the unique sound of a cappella barbershop harmony, sharing its passion for music and empowering women in every area of their lives since 1945.
Scottsdale Chorus has long been associated with the organization, scoring its first-place championship title in 1984, 1989, 2006, 2011, 2016 and 2019. The chorus also has the distinction of never having placed lower than third at the international level.
Since its inception, Scottsdale Chorus has always placed either first or second at the regional level. And because of wildcard qualifications, the group typically scores so highly that it receives an invitation to compete at the international level even when it places second at the regional level.
In fact, one of Scottsdale Chorus’ international wins was a result of a wildcard invitation.
“We push each other,” Lyford says. “It is a friendly competition but everybody works really hard — and nobody works to come in second.”
In addition to a trophy and individual medals, Sweet Adelines International awards each year’s winning chorus and quartet the opportunity to display at its Tulsa, Oklahoma headquarters a Barbie doll wearing the costume singers wore during the competition.
“We have a friend who used to be in our chorus who makes the miniature costumes out of the original material,” Lyford says.
Raising the Bar
Lyford, who has served as Scottsdale Chorus’ musical director since 1993, attributes the group’s success in competitions to its members’ commitment to learning and growing.
“We just keep raising the bar for ourselves,” she says. “It does not matter if there is a competition. We can either go for the gold medal or we can go for learning more things and growing our skills. We focus more on learning and entertainment. We just keep raising the bar of excellence for ourselves and a lovely byproduct of that is success in the competitive setting.”
Lyford is also a choir teacher at Chandler High School. She has spent 42 years teaching in public schools, having started her career in Washington.
“I was a band teacher when I first started,” Lyford says. “I had wanted to be a choir teacher but my jobs ended up being more band related. When I became the musical director of Scottsdale Chorus, I had to first get a job here in Arizona.”
Lyford ended up getting hired as a general music teacher at an elementary school in Chandler Unified School District — a position that she kept for 15 years. When Chandler High School’s choir teacher retired, she applied for and received the position.
“I just love teaching,” Lyford says. “I do not know what I would be doing if I was not directing somebody somewhere. My students and my members are always eager to learn new things.”
Over the years, a number of Chandler High School students have gone on to join Scottsdale Chorus — especially those in The Treblemakers, a women’s barbershop chorus that Lyford directs at the school.
“Many of them are in their late 20s now heading toward their 30s,” Lyford says. “It is very fun to see them all grow up.”
Feels Like Home
On Sunday, May 3 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, Scottsdale Chorus will perform a concert that includes a pair of medleys that are polar opposites of one another, illustrating not only their tremendous talent but also their remarkable range.
“One of the pieces is a medley that includes The Carpenters’ ‘Top of the World,”’ Lyford says. “Then there is ‘Softly, As I Leave You’ — a ballad that is really beautiful. It is an emotionally difficult song to sing because it is from the perspective of a person who passes away, talking about what a beautiful thing their relationship was. It is such a gorgeous song.”
Scottsdale Chorus’ May 3 concert — which the group has named Feels Like Home — will also include several silly songs that are full of fun and energy, such as a “Jump” medley featuring the music of Van Halen and The Pointer Sisters.
“We are going to have a lot of contrast in this performance,” Lyford says. “I really hope that this show will bring into our audience people who are not familiar with barbershop music and that if we are their first connection with it, they come away from the experience knowing what a cool genre and how musically satisfying it is.”
The music director and choir teacher adds that singing music is very important in the development of youth and in the lives of adults.
“I tell my chorus members and my students that if they really invest in this and really become enmeshed in singing, it will change their lives,” Lyford explains. “We have become a nation of music consumers. Everybody walks around with their earbuds in, not making eye contact because they are busy listening to music. When my mom was a kid, it was a fun Friday night when everybody would get together around the piano and sing. There has definitely been a shift away from that.
“I have found that singing really does change lives. For a lot of people, it completely changes their outlook on life for the positive. Singing a cappella music requires a great deal of courage. There is no piano, orchestra or backtrack to rely on. So you really have to learn your stuff and just go for it. People become more secure and more confident as a result.”
Feels Like Home: An Afternoon with the Scottsdale Chorus
Sunday, May 3 | 3–4:30 p.m. | Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts | 7380 E. Second St., Scottsdale | $30
480-499-8587 | scottsdaleperformingarts.org