Breaking out of the barbershop

Jamie Lyons

Tonic Sol-Fa, an a cappella quartet, will perform as a part of the Celebrity Series in the Concert Hall of the Moody Music Building on Sunday at 2 pm. The all-male group hails from the Midwest and tours nationwide.

Single ticket prices are $7 for students and up to $22 for others.

Tonic Sol-Fa is comprised of two founding members, Shaun Johnson and Mark McGowan, and two newer additions to the group, Greg Bannwarth and Jared Dove.

Jared Dove, the bass, explained that the group started at St. John’s University near St. Cloud, Minn. He added that the quartet does not fit the definition of what most people expect from an a cappella group.

“A lot of people have the misconception that we are a barbershop group,” Dove said. “Although there is nothing wrong with barbershop, we try to compete, our music, with what is on the radio. We do everything from country to pop to rock and oldies.”

Dove explained that the group performs a mix of original songs and cover songs. The group usually plays with the style of the songs they cover.

The original songs are usually a collaborative process involving all four members of the group adding their opinions about how certain parts of the song should go. Dove said Johnson, a tenor, is the usual songwriter.

“If you come to the show, you’ll hear a song or two that you’ll enjoy, and if not, enjoy the banter,” Dove said.

Tonic Sol-Fa performs a total of more than 150 concerts in 48 different states each year. They have also toured nationally, internationally and been featured on many television shows such as NBC’s ”Today Show” and at a variety of sporting events.

Dove said the quartet enjoys the challenge of winning over a new audience when touring.

“It’s quite a boost to our morale, so to speak, to get the audience to like us. That’s kind of fun,” Dove said.

As for Tuscaloosa, Dove said the group hopes they can win over the audience here.

“We are definitely coming into an area that is for the most part not familiar with our group. Hopefully, we’ll win over a new fan base in a part of the country that we haven’t really been to recently,” Dove said.

The group’s original songs, arrangements and albums have garnered national recognition and numerous awards in the genre of contemporary a cappella.

The term ‘a cappella’ is Italian for ‘in the manner of the church,’ meaning that the quartet performs using only voices to create pitch. Bannwarth, a tenor, explained that the group incorporates a tambourine or shaker from time to time for tempo and style, and that their albums often include more percussion.

The name Tonic Sol-Fa refers to the solfège scale (Do, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do) that is used to teach sight singing. Bannwarth said the name was actually an instance of happenstance.

“When we first started singing together, we didn’t have any idea what we should be called but we didn’t want something normal,” Bannwarth said, “So we each picked up a different dictionary and started flipping through. Someone opened the “t’s” and found tonic sol-fa, which is a musical term.”

Recently, the group has been called one of the top five “must see” groups in America, and Bannwarth explained that he thinks the group’s dynamic is what propelled their success.

“None of us are prima-donnas. We’re just four guys who are all fairly good at what we do. Half the time we are making each other crack up, or we are working together to make our music better.”

He added that each member of the group is genuine and that the group enjoys performing together on stage.

“Who we are off stage is who we are on stage,” Bannwarth said, “Who wouldn’t want a job where after everything you do you get applause?”

Tonic Sol-Fa has seen tremendous growth in popularity in the last few years. They have sold over one million CDs and their music is being aired on select radio stations across the country.

Bannwarth said that growth is in the future for Tonic Sol-Fa as well. The quartet has their third PBS special in the works to air in late fall, and they are also working on new albums.

“We are never really content. We like to appreciate where we are, but we like to challenge ourselves,” he said.

“We have been nominated for a couple of Emmy awards, with our work on television. A Grammy would be nice,“ Bannwarth added.