Chris Owens is standing in front of Chorus of the Keys at First Baptist Church, in downtown Sarasota. Commanding a sea of men on risers, Owens leads the group through the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”
When the refrain kicks in, two men step forward and begin to strum air guitars as the rest of the chorus croons and swoons to the song’s familiar lyrics.
From his spot in front of the risers, Owens gestures wildly and points to his open lips.
The singers dutifully project their voices, creating the nostalgic harmonic sound audiences have grown to expect from the 61-year-old barbershop chorus.
Even the men playing air guitars begin to strum with more vigor.
A small audience has gathered for the weekly rehearsal. They sit on folding chairs, bobbing their heads to the a cappella music.
In the middle of this, Owens’ cell phone rings. He takes the call.
It’s his teenage step-daughter, who’s calling to report that her 10-year-old brother is not helping dry the dishes.
The conversation lasts all of 10 seconds; long enough for Owens to solve the matter and return to directing the last refrain of “Dream.”
As he stuffs the cell phone back into his pants pocket, he apologizes for the interruption. The guys, however, don’t seem to notice. They’re still belting out the Everly Brothers.
Only his 14-year-old step-son, Ben Lovett — the youngest member of the chorus — acknowledges the phone call with a nod and a smile.
Though only eight months into the job, Owens, 51, seems to have attained a comfort level some directors take years to hone.
“I’ve got a full plate,” he says. “But when I’m dog-tired, this chorus lifts me up. These guys are funny. They don’t care what they say or how they say it and they just crack me up. Plus, they sing well. They take instruction well, and they’re not afraid to tell me when I’m wrong.”
Owens has spent his entire life making music.
The band director at Heron Creek Middle School, Owens, a Bradenton resident and father of four, is also the director of Englewood’s Lemon Bay Chord Company.
Until recently, Owens, a baritone, sang in a Sarasota barbershop quartet and ran a music ministry program in Bradenton. He dropped out of both this year to focus on his new role with Chorus of the Keys.
Rather than dive into all-new songs for his first concert as director, Owens decided to choose several audience favorites, including The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” Man of La Mancha’s “The Impossible Dream,”
Disney’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.”
As a member of the chorus for two years, Owens say she has a keen sense of what the guys like to sing and the audience likes to hear.
And, contrary to what you might think, he doesn’t miss singing.
“When I’m directing, I’m still singing in my mind,” Owens says. “Sometimes, I sing under my breath. I can’t help it. The music is just too good.”
OWENS’ FAVORITE BARBERSHOP MELODIES
‘Sweet and Lovely’
“You’ve gotta sing it to understand it. It’s like eating the best ice cream.”
‘After You’ve Gone’
“It’s fun, fast and drives all the way to the end. It’s about a breakup, and the song just keeps going and going.”
‘On a Wonderful Day Like Today’
“Every time we sing it, it’s like we’re doing it just to get to the grand finale, like playing a whole game of football just to score in the end zone.”
IF YOU GO
Sarasota Chorus of the Keys will perform its 61st annual show, “Classic Harmonies You Love to Hear,” at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26, at the Riverview Performing Arts Center. For tickets, call 484-7589 or visit www.chorusofthekeys.org.