Willmar-based West Central Connection hopes to pass barbershop singing to new generation with youth festival

The Youth in Harmony festival, held by the West Central Connections Chorus, will take place Saturday and include a public concert.

Youth in Harmony Festival Concert February 2020
The West Central Connection Chorus has held the Youth in Harmony festival for several years. It gives young men the chance to learn about a cappella singing and then perform their new talents. This year's festival will take place on Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Willmar Senior High School. The concert is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.
Contributed / Dennis Benson

WILLMAR — The sounds of barbershop music will fill Willmar Senior High School this Saturday, Feb. 4, as the West Central Connection Barbershop Chorus hosts its Youth in Harmony Festival. The festival brings dozens of middle and high school male choir singers from across the area together and gives them the opportunity to learn the rich tradition and skills of barbershop and a cappella singing.

"It is a fun day," said festival coordinator and chorus member Jon Schmidt. "We work on breath support, proper singing and how to not wear your voice out."

The festival was formed in 2007-2008. A legacy gift from West Central Connection director Todd Mattison's late father, a founding member of West Central Connection, was used as seed money to start the festival.

"My dad was a lover of barbershop and when young guys sang it," Mattison said.

West Central Connection invites male choir students from around the area to join the festival. Forty-seven students from six school districts will be taking part this year, the first festival after a two-year pandemic hiatus. It might come as a bit of surprise that so many teenagers are interested in barbershop, but the tides of what is cool in music have been shifting the past several years.


"A cappella is super hot right now, and barbershop is finding its place in that a cappella world again finally," Mattison said.

Youth singing around a piano Youth in Harmony Festival 2020
Participants in the 2020 Youth in Harmony festival learn their parts around a piano as an instructor plays.
Contributed / Dennis Benson

The festival begins with the students taking part in an afternoon of singing instruction, fine-tuning songs they have been practicing for weeks prior.

This year, they will be taught by Peter Benson , a well-known and award-winning barbershop performer and director, and Kordal Kombat , an a cappella quartet. The quartet will work with the individual parts of the choir, while Benson will bring it all together into a cohesive whole.

"Their energy level and ability, both of them, to work with the guys is an instant rapport," Schmidt said of the instructors.

The festival culminates with a 6:30 p.m. concert in the Willmar Senior High School theater, which is open and free to the public. The students will perform, as will West Central Connection and Kordal Kombat.

"Come out and listen to us sing," Schmidt said, urging the public to come out and cheer on the hard work of these singers.

The chorus has been able to continue offering the festival over the years thanks to community support.

Boys singing during Youth in Harmony Festival 2020
During the Youth in Harmony barbershop festival, young men learn all about a cappella singing.
Contributed / Dennis Benson

"We have a lot of sponsors from the community that generously donated every year to us," said Gregg Tangerman, president of West Central Connection.


Members of the chorus hope the students end up sharing the love of barbershop, a cappella music and singing in general.

Since its inception, the Youth in Harmony festival has taught hundreds of young singers over the years, many who have taken part multiple times. Some students have even turned around and become members of West Central Connection.

The goal of the festival is to not only teach barbershop but also keep young performers interested in singing past high school and even college. There have been multiple studies that have shown the benefits for youth to be involved in the arts, including singing, both in regard to academic success and mental health. Those benefits continue into adulthood.

"Our hope is they find some place else to sing, even if it is not barbershop," said Mattison. "Our mission was not create a bunch of barbershop guys but to create people that will sing."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email or direct 320-214-4373.

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