Off the Clock: Karen Lee, singing bass in a barbershop chorus for more than 30 years


Life is much more than time spent on the clock. In this series, we highlight the unique hobbies and volunteer activities of Mason's talented faculty and staff.

Karen Lee singing
Karen Lee performing in New Orleans in 2019. Photo provided

Karen Lee, assistant director of the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR) at George Mason University, helps coordinate funding for undergraduates to conduct research or explore creative projects. Working one-on-one with Mason students, Lee connects them with mentors and opportunities.

Outside of work, Lee sings bass in a women’s barbershop chorus called the Vienna-Falls Chorus, a chapter of Sweet Adelines International. She has been a part of the Sweet Adelines since 1991 and has performed with the Vienna-Falls Chorus at events and competitions for six years, since arriving at Mason.

How did you first get started singing in a women’s barbershop chorus? What made you get into this hobby?

My last year of graduate school, I was looking for something to do besides writing my thesis and job hunting, to get a break from all that. I saw an ad in the paper for a small women’s barbershop chorus looking for singers. I had done some singing in college and played in the high school band. Barbershop sounded like just what I was looking for. I have a pretty low singing voice for a woman, and I love harmonizing, so the bass part in women’s barbershop is perfect for me.

I joined the Island Grove Chorus of Sweet Adelines International in fall of 1991 and have been a member of Sweet Adelines ever since.

What is the time commitment? Does it vary at different times of the year?

The joke is that it’s only one night a week. We rehearse once a week, but we don’t hold music, so we spend some time outside of rehearsal learning the music on our own. If we are preparing for a show or contest, we might have an extra rehearsal here and there, and some times of the year we have more performances than other times. In December, we have several holiday performances, and in the summer, we often sing for Honor Flights.  We have weekend-long retreats once or twice a year and regional education weekends, which are voluntary. If you’re in a quartet as well as a chorus, then you have separate commitments for quartet.

What has been the most meaningful or memorable experience you’ve had singing for a barbershop chorus?

There are so many. One year, my former chorus, the Greater Harrisburg Chorus, qualified for the Sweet Adelines International contest in Honolulu, and we spent 10 days in Hawaii.

We also competed at World Choir Games in Cincinnati. It was the first time barbershop was included. We decided to give it a try, and we won the category. They set up the awards ceremony like the Olympics and even played the national anthem. We met singers from all over the world. One of the children’s choirs from China ended up having lunch near us a couple of times and insisted on taking a picture with us on the last day.

And, singing for Honor Flights with Vienna-Falls is a great honor and privilege.

What lessons have you learned through this experience?

That you must have something in your life that is not an obligation, that allows you to be “you” away from work and other responsibilities. Some of the best friends you’ll ever make are when you share a hobby. I have so many friends who I sang with that I would never have met if it wasn’t for Sweet Adelines. It has kept music in my life and given me a place to call home every time I have changed locations for a new job. I have been in six choruses over my 31 years  as a barbershopper, and having a chorus nearby is a requirement whenever I think about a move.

Do you have a favorite song you enjoy performing?

I have many songs that I really like, but it would be kind of like asking people who is their favorite child or favorite friend, to ask me to pick just one. I like songs for a variety of reasons. But a melodic bass line in the meat of my range, or a song with a great message, often rise to the top for me, especially if it’s well suited to the chorus. The joy of making music as an ensemble is the point.

What else do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I walk a lot, travel (especially to the beach), make jewelry, and watch way too much TV.