Nicola Lisle talks to a man who is inspiring a new tradition

Barbershop singing is for men, right? Well, originally yes, but these days ladies are increasingly wading into this traditional male territory, and around 50 choirs have sprung up across the UK since the formation of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers (LABBS) in 1976.

One such choir is the Oxford-based Harmony Inspires, which began in 2008 and now has around 40 members. Since January their director has been Peter Cookson, an experienced barbershop singer who was keen to try his hand at directing.

“I started singing barbershop in Reading in 1999 and loved it,” he says. “I’ve done a lot since then! I’ve probably done at least 40 rehearsals a year every year for the past 12 years, plus competitions. So it’s been pretty intense!”

Although he is a structural engineer by profession, music has always been a very important part of his life.

“My mother was a pianist and my father used to enjoy singing, although he had no formal training. There was always music around the house, with the wider family as well — cousins, uncles and aunts. There was always singing at Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties and things like that.

“Under duress I learnt to play the piano when I was about six, which I can’t say I was greatly thrilled by, but now I count my blessings because it means I can read music. I did this until I was 11 or 12.

“At the same time my father taught me to play the ukulele, which he’d played during the Second World War and used to carry around with him. From there I graduated to the guitar and dropped the piano.”

Playing the guitar became a major passion and opened up all kinds of interesting opportunities.

“I learnt acoustic guitar and then through a friend at school I got interested in the flamenco guitar and played that quite a lot — to the extent that I went to the Gypsy Festival in the South of France when I was about 17 or 18, and played with Gypsies down there. I also sang with a folk group in Lancashire in my teens.”

The guitar continued to dominate during Peter’s university years. While studying for his degree at Balliol College, he became President of the Oxford Guitar Society and organised concerts at the Town Hall, involving such great names as John Williams, Julian Bream, Ralph McTell and John Martin.

He went on to do a research degree at Cambridge, where he joined a revue group and performed alongside the likes of Drop the Dead Donkey writer Andy Hamilton and The Vicar of Dibley co-writer Paul Mayhew-Archer.

At the same time, he was unknowingly sowing the seeds for his involvement with barbershop by singing with choral societies, including tackling some of the major works in the choral repertoire.

With all that going on, it does seem surprising that Peter didn’t make a career out of music. Was he never tempted to go down that path?

“Frankly, I don’t think I’m of that quality,” he admits. “I love music as an amateur musician, but you’ve got to be very good to become a professional musician and make a living out of it. I’m retired now, though, so now I can do my music!”

Peter discovered barbershop by chance through a conversation at a social function, and by the time he took over Harmony Inspires had built up an impressive barbershop pedigree.

For several years he was a member of the Reading Barbershop Harmony Club, serving for two years as club chairman and helping the club win three bronze medals and one silver in the annual British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) chorus competition.

When his work took him north, he joined the Bolton Barbershop Harmony Club, winning gold medals in the 2011 and 2013 BABS chorus competitions and taking part in the International Competition in Philadelphia in 2010.

“That was quite an experience,” he says of the trip to Philadelphia. “The audience was about 8,000-10,000 people, and it was Independence Day so there was a real party atmosphere.”

It was about this time that Peter saw that Harmony Inspires was looking for a new chorus director, but a new job in Manchester prevented him from taking up the opportunity straightaway.

Luckily for him, the club decided to wait for him to return to Oxfordshire, and he took over the reins in January.

Now he is keen to continue improving the quality of the choir and help promote the idea of ladies’ barbershop.

“You hear people saying they don’t like ladies’ barbershops, because they’re contrasting it with men’s,” he says.

“With the men, because of the bass, you tend to get a fuller, richer sound. With the ladies’ choruses, you get a far cleaner sound because of their different registers. So they are very different sounds, but still based on the same principles.

“The other thing about singing is that it’s very therapeutic, and it’s good fun. That’s what’s nice about the barbershop world — it’s a very friendly culture and seems to be like a big party at times. So it’s a very social art form.”

Harmony Inspires recently competed in the annual convention, where they missed out on medals but received some very positive feedback. Now they hope to attract new members with a free come-and-sing course in January, before embarking on their usual schedule of charity shows and other private bookings.

“There’s an enthusiasm around the chorus which I’m keen to cultivate and get more people involved,” says Peter.

“Singing in four-part harmony, when it’s going well, is an incredible feeling. We’re really wanting competent singers who are prepared to enter the spirit of the thing.

“You don’t have to go out and compete or do shows, just singing together is good fun.”

The free come-and-sing course is on January 15, 22 and 29. Visit for full details.