From the sidewalk, you can hear music pouring from the Sandberg home in Harmony Grove, California. Stepping inside, the sound shifts to uproarious laughter and there’s a festive air of excitement in the room that is noteworthy.
Music is strewn throughout the space. Microphone placement and quartet standing positions are taped off on the floor and the members of SoloVoce (along with honorary fifth member, baby Benji, assorted spouses and a dog) are reviewing and making notes while watching video of a recent performance. It’s clear that these singers are longtime friends, navigating their conversation with the comfortable ease of those happily married, balancing compliments with feedback for the next run-through.
SoloVoce, the Region 21 Golden West 2023 Quartet Champion, is counting the days until they compete in the International Quartet Semifinals in Louisville, Kentucky. The event, which is part of the 75th Annual Convention & Competition of Sweet Adelines International (SAI), will take place October 30th through November 4th.
A total of 44 quartets advanced from SAI’s 2023 Regional contests to compete at the International level. Contests are adjudicated by eight judges, each of whom intensively evaluate one of the four categories that comprise the overall score: Sound, Music, Expression and Visual Communication. Of competing quartets in the Semi-Final phase, only 10 will advance to the Finals on November 1st.
From this select group, the panel of judges will designate the 2023 SAI Quartet Champion. Along with the coveted honor, quartet members receive the lifelong title of Queen of Harmony and become members of the Coronet Club. Placement anywhere within the top 10 is considered an honor reflective of tremendous skill and musicianship. SoloVoce, first-timers to the International Stage, has their sights set on the Novice Award.
Since their formation in 2016, SoloVoce has been a staple on the Region 21 stage. Baritone Jennifer French notes that SoloVoce identified competition as a primary goal from the beginning, and it’s been a guiding force for the foursome throughout their time together.
“We placed 9th in our first competition,” French recalls. “Region 21 is incredibly competitive, so we were encouraged by that outcome. Of course we immediately looked ahead to how we could improve and what we wanted to work on next in terms of skills and overall sound."
Initially the quartet formed with Alysse Turner as Lead, but an unexpected move to the east coast brought about a transition for the group. That change opened the door to welcome Tracey Sandberg.
“From the first time we explored the idea of singing together, our group had a connectedness that was just fun,” Sandberg says. “It’s important to be clear about goals, and it really resonated with me that SoloVoce was upfront and focused on what they wanted to accomplish.”
Although SoloVoce is new to the International stage, its members share a remarkable breadth of experience between them. Lead Tracey Sandberg is the Chief Technology Officer for the Port of San Diego. Throughout her barbershop career, Sandberg has been part of ten quartets. Among them are award-winners Backstage Pass and Orange Crush (3rd in Region 11 and 5th in Region 21). She is a 24-year member of Sweet Adelines, having sung with the 2023 Region 21 Chorus Champions Harborlites as well as the San Diego Chorus. Sandberg also sings in Pacific Coast Harmony, a mixed Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) chorus under the direction of Bonnie McKibben. As if that wasn’t enough, Tracey sings with husband Bryan Sandberg in mixed quartet MotleyQ. The foursome is the 2022 Far Western District BHS Novice Champions and the 2023 Southeast Division BHS Champion and District 5th Place Quartet.
“I come from a Barbershop family so I’ve been around this my whole life,” Sandberg notes. “I learned early on that you don’t do this to win … that’s not the WHY. The WHY is that our quartet is a family. We love each other’s spouses and babies and pets. We cheer each other on! Plus, when we’re singing we don’t have responsibilities or a mortgage, you know. We are just four people who love singing together. Singing in a quartet is the best thing that you can do!”
Baritone Jennifer French has sung with the San Diego Chorus for more than 12 years. During that time, she has held multiple leadership roles on the Chorus Management Team and Director’s Music Team and provided event support to Region 21. French’s first quartet, Chordial, won the Novice award in 2012. Following Chordial, a brief stint with Silver Linings preceded her involvement in SoloVoce. French is a Judicial Secretary supporting Family Law judges in the Superior Court of San Diego. She is also the public face of SoloVoce, serving as booking and contest contact.
“Jennifer is so much fun!” Marina Hayden says with a warm smile. “She’s genuine and not afraid to speak her mind, but she is loving about it. Jennifer supports SoloVoce in countless ways to keep us moving forward.”
Tenor Rebecca “Bex” Smith sang with the San Diego Chorus for six years. During that time she was Tenor section leader, a member of the Front Row, and even served as Assistant Director for a year. Smith now sings with the 2023 Region 21 Chorus Champions Harborlites, where she is Assistant Tenor Section Leader and a member of the Front Row. She was part of the performance quartet Moonshine with Tracey Sandberg prior to joining SoloVoce. Rebecca grew up singing in choirs and is a music educator, teaching PreK - 6th grade music in Orange County, California.
“The reason that I Iove barbershop is because it’s so technical,” says Bex. “It feeds my theory brain and my perfection brain.” Other members of SoloVoce are quick to point out that Smith’s masterful grasp of music theory, rhythm and chord structure has helped all of them grow.
“I’m also the ‘Keeper of Fun,’” Smith says, laughing. “I make sure we take regular ‘union’ breaks. I love playing games, so that factors into our rehearsal time.” Smith is also mom to SoloVoce’s honorary 5th voice, 4-month-old baby Benji and wife to Matt Smith, drummer of Phat Cat Swinger. Bex brings a lighthearted, joyful spirit to SoloVoce.
Bass Marina Hayden began her SAI career in the Orland Junction Chorus. Since relocating to the West Coast, Marina Hayden has been a member of the San Diego Chorus for nearly 30 years. Hayden has been a Front Row member for the entirety of her time in San Diego. Over the years, Hayden has served in multiple leadership capacities, including Membership Coordinator, Front Row Coordinator and Coaching Coordinator for the CMT and DMT. Hayden also holds the titles of Operations Manager and Sensei at Freestyle Martial Arts in San Diego and Administrative Review Editor for the Journal of Emergency Medicine.
“I’m the only member of SoloVoce who had not explored quartetting, so I’m late to the party.” Hayden says. “When it came to SoloVoce, the timing and the people just felt right.”
Hayden has earned the nickname of the “hardest working bass in Sweet Adelines,” based on her tireless dedication to improving her vocal technique and sound. “I never wanted to be the person to hold SoloVoce back,” she says. “I’m always thinking about how I can improve and bring my best to every rehearsal and performance.”
That same level of dedication shines in all four members of SoloVoce.
“We are grateful for every opportunity to put ourselves out there,” Bex says adamantly. “Private coaching, coaching under glass, whatever it is, we say yes! We took every gig - even some really unusual ones - to get as much ‘rug time’ as possible.”
The singers recall focusing intently on developing their unique sound a few years ago, which began with in-depth work on unison singing with the goal of defining one collective voice for the quartet. They see this season along with adherence to a detailed practice matrix as significant turning points. After earning their first 4th place Region 21 medal in 2019, SoloVoce experienced a noticeable, sustained improvement in their resonance and matched unit sound.
The group attributes their growth trajectory to vocal and performance coaching from pillars within the Sweet Adelines International community. Among them, Kim Vaughn, Patti Cobb Baker and Lynn Smith.
“Kim’s been with us from the very beginning. She’s offered input on our music selections, and was willing to ‘get real’ with us about what she likes and doesn’t like about our sound. That kind of honest feedback is invaluable,” says Tracey.
“It’s hard to put into words the impact that Kim has had on our sound,” adds Jennifer. “We’re very grateful to all of our coaches.”
French remembers bringing champagne and sparkling cider to the hotel to celebrate the outcome of the 2023 Regional Contest, something the foursome had never done before.
“I decided to change my thinking about the whole thing. I said to the group ‘Why couldn’t WE win it?’” says Baritone Jennifer French. “I really believe that you can have that ‘Why not us?’ mindset with humility and gratitude. It’s important to believe in what is possible if you want to bring your best to the stage.”
“Her question got my attention,” Sandberg says. “It wasn’t how I was used to thinking about things, so I had to shift my lens. The thing is, we really couldn’t come up with any good reasons why we couldn’t make it a reality!”
SoloVoce is passionate about encouraging singers of all ages to quartet. Members have volunteered their time in support of the next generation of a cappella, participating in Harborlites’ Diva Days and SD Youth Harmony Days. They also recently hosted their fourth annual Music on the Porch Day, showcasing barbershop quartets and choruses from across the region.
“Even if you are brand new to barbershop, the bottom line is being in a quartet will help you become a better singer. Plus you’ll make lifelong friends in the process,” says French. “There is no downside!”
Looking ahead, SoloVoce sees endless possibilities. The quartet is already refining a “Swan Song” package and identifying new milestones for the next regional contest they are eligible for in 2024.
As the quartet talks excitedly about the future, Tracey recalls a past Region 21 Breakfast with the Judges event.
“Renée Porzel said something that stood out to me,” Sandberg remembers. “She said that the biggest mistake quartets make is not staying together long enough to allow their sound to evolve. When I think about how much our sound has changed over the last 7 years - why would we ever give up on that? I’m glad we didn’t ... and I hope other people won't, either.”
SoloVoce is Contestant #29, currently scheduled to take the stage at approximately 5:15 PM (EDT) / 2:15 (PDT). A live webcast of the event is available through Sweet Adelines International.
The San Diego Chorus of Sweet Adelines International is an award-winning chorus performing 4-part a cappella harmony in the barbershop style.