Barbershop music has moved well beyond red stripes and straw hats, and there’s no better proof than this Rockford chorus. Using just their voices, these singers are making waves on the city’s music scene.
A Cappella is Italian for “in the manner of the chapel,” and it describes a unique style of singing that’s performed unaccompanied by instruments. With roots that stretch back to the 15th century, this style remains popular with music fans thanks to groups like Pentatonix, Home Free, The Swingle Singers and movies like “Pitch Perfect.”
The world of a cappella is a diverse one that mixes in a variety of styles, including jazz, contemporary, doo-wop and barbershop, just to name a few. A cappella groups range in size from a four-member quartet to entire choruses with several members creating lush and complex melodies.
In the Rockford region, several groups make up the a capella scene, but few have the recognition that’s been awarded to the 2nd City Chorus. This award-winning group consists of men and women of all ages and backgrounds, and their specialty is the barbershop style, a form of a cappella known for tight vocal harmonies that form constant chords.
David Mouri has managed the 2nd City Chorus for the past 10 years.
“Barbershop a capella has really progressed over the years to include relevant music that also represents the culture of the day,” says Mouri, who also sings with the chorus. “It is no longer the stereotypical image of men in striped suits with straw hats singing ‘Sweet Adeline.’”
Mouri has been a vocalist for 42 years, singing bass in the chorus and in his own barbershop quartet, called 2nd Opinion.
“The style is complex. It is an art form,” says Mouri. “You are not just focused on harmonizing with one another. You are moving in a lot of different ways throughout the song to create the perfect tone.”
The 2nd City Chorus has deep roots in Rockford. It was founded in 1996 by original members of the Sinnissippi Sound Chorus, some of whom had a great deal of experience directing barbershop quartets. At least one founder had won international acclaim with the West Towns Chorus, from Lombard, Ill.
In establishing 2nd City, their goal was to continue the momentum in Rockford, this time expanding their playbook to genres beyond just barbershop. In 2005, the new group competed in its first Illinois District contest and came home with a win that helped establish the chorus as a serious group of singers. The chorus continues to compete every other year in the Illinois District against 40 choruses and 25 to 35 quartets. During off years, they produce an annual show featuring a variety of musical styles.
The chorus is part of the Rockford Metro chapter of the Illinois District of the Barbershop Harmony Society, and they’ve competed in many of the Society’s competitions, winning the Small Chorus championship in the Illinois District as well as the Illinois District’s Most Entertaining Chorus award.
The 2nd City Chorus has been under the musical direction of Joe Tomecek since 2010. Tomecek has also been an assistant director with the West Towns Chorus for over a decade, and he remains with West Towns as a singer, baritone section leader, assistant director and chorus performance coach.
Today, 2nd City Chorus is made up of 21 singers, both men and women, from all walks of life. They are teachers, engineers, salesmen, pilots, mechanics, counselors, doctors, nurses and retirees with a love of music that brings them together.
The chorus was not always mixed company. Barbershop groups were a men-only affair until 2017, when the Barbershop Harmony Society made a radical decision to welcome women as full members. The 2nd City Chorus embraced the new direction and, following the Harmony Society’s fall contest, were crowned as the first Mixed Chorus Champions.
Things have stalled in the choral world since the outbreak of COVID, but 2nd City Chorus plans to return to competitions in September. There’s also a push to attract new members, with the hope that young people will take an interest in the art form.
“Barbershop-style music has been arranged in a lot of modern songs now,” says Mouri. “The genre is keeping up with the times. It is relevant to modern music today.”
To get the word out, 2nd City performs at community events and appears periodically at nursing homes or at Rockford Rivets baseball games, where they sing the National Anthem. They also perform at Midway Village Museum for a number of events, including the Great War and World War II Hands on History days.
The public is even invited to take free singing lessons through a six-week program where participants learn about breathing techniques, singing techniques and blending vowels – key qualities to producing the unique barbershop style. At the end of the program, participants join members of the 2nd City Chorus in a concert for family and friends.
The 2nd City Chorus rehearses every Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at Christ United Methodist Church, 4509 Highcrest Road in Rockford. To hire the chorus for an event, or to join its ranks, connect online at 2ndcitychorus.com.
Joining the chorus is easy and open for people with different levels of singing experience.
“Singing in a chorus is easier because you have other people who can back you up,” Mouri says.