Double Date had already started to create buzz in St. Louis, before they entered their first world competition in Germany. Now, returning with gold medals, they’re starting to create a stir in the international music scene.
The quartet made up of University of Missouri–St. Louis students and recent alumni, won the world mixed quartet division at the recent Barbershop in Germany (BinG!) competition. The group beat out quartets from several other countries, often with much older and more experienced members. The BinG! competition is unusual because most competitions offer divisions for either all-male or all-female groups, rather than mixed-gender quartets. Double Date is the first American quartet to win the competition.
Blair Brown, Nathan Johnston, Ravi Raghuram and Michaela Slamka formed the group when they were all students at UMSL and members of Vocal Point. The group’s name comes from the fact that the four members are both couples — Brown and Raghuram are dating each other, as are Johnston and Slamka. They feel their romantic connection and strong friendships aid their performance.
“We sing love songs and people knew we are real couples, and I think that had an effect on people,” said Brown, who graduated from UMSL in December with a degree in vocal music.
Barbershop is an a cappella form of singing, often performed by quartets or choruses, and became popular in the early 1900s. Originally, it was done by all-male groups, but women have taken up the art form as well. Barbershop is often associated with eras gone by, but American barbershop music societies are working to create a youth movement to preserve the genre, something that Double Date members hope to be a part of.
Johnston grew up in Hillsboro, Mo., playing in country and bluegrass bands with his family, but was always attracted more to singing than playing an instrument. He began researching a cappella music on YouTube when he was a teenager and found barbershop music online that he used for practicing.
“The hardest thing about this is getting it to be known,” said Johnston, a senior majoring in music education. “It’s not really a big thing here yet. One of our goals is to remedy that.”
Double Date spent a year practicing for the competition in Germany, and attracted the eye of university benefactors who offered university support for their trip to Germany. After months of rehearsals with renowned barbershop arranger David Wright, they felt prepared for the competition, but unsure of their prospects. When they listened to their competition online, they sounded good, too.
In addition to Wright’s coaching, they also took inspiration from UMSL professor of music Jim Henry, who is a well-known figure in the barbershop world and one of their mentors at UMSL.
When Double Date arrived in Germany, the group focused on befriending the other singers and exploring the local culture. During the week leading up to the competition, they attended rehearsals for a local chorus and visited a nearby high school. The kids were so taken with Double Date that they showed up to cheer them on from the audience.
“It felt like the audience was really on our side,” said Raghuram, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in music education. “As soon as we walked on stage, they knew who we were, because we made it a point to meet everybody.”
Double Date’s main goal was to make it to the finals. What they didn’t know was that after the semi-finals, their score was nearly untouchable. Their final performance included arrangements of “If Ever I Would Leave You” from the musical “Camelot” and “Little Patch of Heaven” from the film “Home on the Range.”
As the results were announced starting from eighth place, the group didn’t know they would get first.
Now that they’re back in the U.S., Double Date is already receiving offers to perform around the country and in St. Louis. Part of their goal is to bring barbershop music to a new generation. They’ll be able to do that by performing and teaching at the Acappellooza Summer Camp hosted by UMSL in July.
“Before this, we were Double Date, a quartet from UMSL,” said Slamka, who grew up in Michigan and Florida with a father who performed in barbershop quartets. She’s now a junior music major and student in the Pierre Laclede Honors College. “Now that we have an international title, I think it will be easier to get shows and get our name out there.”