“You might have gotten roped in by a friend from college or joined because it was something you just wanted to try, but eventually you realize that barbershop is just part of your life.”

Johnny Bugarin

Sound of the Rockies’ 52eighty youth chorus is always looking to the future.

Since its founding in 2008, the mission of the award-winning 25 and under ensemble has been to introduce new generations of singers to the barbershop art form. In 2017, 52eighty opened its membership to women, becoming the first mixed barbershop chorus in the Rocky Mountain district. And, last July, it became the first mixed chorus to compete at the Barbershop Harmony Society International Convention.   

Music director Johnny Bugarin, who has been with 52eighty since 2015, says sharing the passion for barbershop with a growing and diverse population of singers is one of the most exciting aspects of the group.

“Our reason for being was to get more young people singing barbershop, and we knew from members we recruited at high schools, colleges and universities that there were a lot of women out there who wanted to do it,” Johnny said.

So, when the Barbershop Harmony Society announced its “Everyone in Harmony” initiative in 2017, which officially welcomed women to the organization, 52eighty’s leadership and Sound of the Rockies, which sponsors the chorus, saw it as an opportunity.

“By becoming a mixed chorus, we’ve been able to provide an outlet for all sorts of singers,” Johnny explained. “It’s a different barbershop experience that was right for our group.”

About two dozen singers ages 11 to 25 are part of the ensemble. Nearly half are women. As a relatively small youth chorus, 52eighty has more flexibility than a large ensemble like Sound of the Rockies when it comes to music choices and ways of doing things. Bringing women into the mix has further expanded those possibilities. Beyond barbershop, the ensemble’s songbook includes choral pieces, modern a cappella and other styles that are accessible to both male and female singers.

“We are pleased that we get to be the ones to pave the way for how a mixed barbershop chorus operates and what it looks like and sounds like,” Johnny said.

Over the years, 52eighty has also paved the way for the future of barbershop. While it is not contest focused, the ensemble has made its mark as one of the best in the world, consistently representing the Rocky Mountain District at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Youth Chorus Festival. The chorus won a gold medal at the festival in 2013.

There is little doubt that since the popular Pitch Perfect movies, more young people have been seeking out a cappella choruses and 52eighty has benefited from the boost. But even if they aren’t familiar with barbershop, and weren’t specifically looking for a barbershop a cappella chorus, prospective members are usually seduced by its powerful tight four-part harmony and chords.

Yet, it’s the feeling of community that keeps members coming back, according to Johnny, who also is the assistant music director and a baritone with Sound of the Rockies. “There’s a saying we like to use, ‘People come for the harmony, but they stay for the family.”

That certainly holds true for 52eighty which is a tight-knit group that brings together young people from all over the Front Range who have a common passion for singing. Members are usually in choruses and choirs at their schools, some come from Summer Harmony Camp, a chorus camp that Sound of the Rockies helps to sponsor each year, others are the sons and daughters of current Sound of the Rockies members, and since the chorus became mixed, friends, girlfriends and wives have joined.  

“Everyone is really close,” said Johnny. “The benefit of not having a huge chorus is that we have a lot more opportunity for personal interaction. It provides a chance to build real friendships.” Those bonds have carried over into barbershop quartets that 52eighty members have gone on to form.

While not everyone who joins 52eighty will immediately go on to another chorus after they age out of the youth ensemble, the majority eventually find their way back to barbershop, joining groups like Sound of the Rockies.

“I would venture to say most of the singers in the chorus will probably sing barbershop for the rest of their lives,” said Johnny. “You might have gotten roped in by a friend from college or joined because it was something you just wanted to try, but eventually you realize that barbershop is just part of your life.”

If you are interested in learning more about 52eighty or joining the chorus, contact Johnny Bugarin. If you want to know more about other youth opportunities that Sound of the Rockies helps to sponsor such as Youth Harmony Camp or the High School Chorus Quartet Contest visit soundoftherockies.com.