On Voicings for Mixed Barbershop Choruses

I am returning to this theme as a lot of people are grappling with the challenges of making a genre developed for and within single-sex ensembles work with mixed groups. Having interacted with a number of different ensembles in various capacities in recent times, I wanted to collate what I’ve learned from them about the difficulties they’ve faced and the solutions they have found.

First, though, it is worth thinking through why mixed barbershop can prove tricky, before looking at the consequences for lived experience, and what we can do about it. This may turn into more than one post; it has the feel of a question that expands as you think about it!

Exploring Recurrent Themes with Bristol A Cappella

Some days you find similar concepts coming up repeatedly in different musical contexts; Saturday was such a day with my friends at Bristol A Cappella. One of the advantages of days like this is that you find people get quicker at applying the concepts on successive encounters, and indeed that after a while you no longer have to point out where they need to apply them, as they’re figuring it out for themselves.

One theme for the day was of staying with a note right to the end of the phrase. Linguistically, the brain pretty much moves on when you get to the last syllable of a sentence; in general conversation we don’t tend to elongate them, but go straight to drawing breath for the next utterance. But when singing, it is very audible when the attention has moved on, even if people are holding the note for the notated length. You have to stay interested in it for the tone to retain integrity.

Tuning in to BABS Directors Academy

Jay's selfie captures to joy in the roomJay's selfie captures to joy in the room

The weekend saw the first in-person BABS Directors Academy since 2020 (and my first since 2019, as I missed the last one). We had Dr Jay Dougherty as our guest educator, who brings with him a deep and abiding understanding of the barbershop style along with higher degrees and HE teaching experience in choral conducting. He is probably most known in the barbershop world for having taken over Joe Liles’s ‘Tune it or Die’ course at Harmony University, which he has made his own by drawing on research undertaken in his doctoral studies. He led front and centre with this material, dedicating three consecutive sessions on Saturday to it.

Top Tips for the Older Voice

Today’s title is the subject line of an email I received recently from LABBS Chair, Natalie Feddon. She had been out and about visiting choruses, as is her wont, and had met with a group of ladies whose average age is a shade over 80, and asked me on their behalf if I had any technical advice for their singers, with an eye also to supporting the many other association members round the country who are singing joyfully into their later years.

So, the first and most important thing, they are already doing: keep singing! Singing is like any other skill: the best way to maintain it is to use it regularly. That said, both physical and cognitive capacities do become more fragile with advancing years, so things we once took for granted might over time need a little more care.

So, I’ll start with a general principle, and then make some specific practical suggestions.

An Anatomy of Errors

One of my favourite phrases when rehearsing or coaching is ‘if nobody is making mistakes, nobody is learning’. Of course, it’s not the making of mistakes per se that constitutes the learning process, it’s the process of putting them right. Another phrase I over-use is ‘self-correction is my favourite sound in rehearsal’.

Anyhow, as I have mentioned periodically, I’m practising the piano regularly these days for the first time in years (decades) and as such am making a shed-load of mistakes of my own. They fall into a number of discrete and identifiable categories, and it would help my learning to enumerate them. And as this blog is where I do my learning in public, you can join in. You may recognise some as ones you make, or perhaps you make other, different types that I should aspire to.

(Another over-used phrase: ‘The goal is to avoid making the same old mistakes, but to strive to make new, more interesting ones.’)

Soapbox: Don’t Tread on Your Punchlines

soapboxThere’s a particularly annoying thing that happens every so often to a stand-up comedian: you’ve delivered a set-up and are leaving a beat of silence for the audience to absorb it before giving them the punchline, and some ‘wag’ in the audience (as in person who considers themselves funny, rather than your wife or girlfriend) shouts into the gap. Sometimes they guess your punchline, sometimes they make up a different one, but either way, they take all the comedic potential energy you have carefully built up and discharge it so that whatever you do next will fall flat.

Today’s soapbox theme is not to inveigh against them, as, although there are things you can do to reduce the chances of it happening, or to cope when it does, you can’t fundamentally control an audience’s behaviour.

Instead, I am going to be opinionated about people, in particular vocal ensembles (since that is mostly the social world of this blog), who effectively do this to themselves.

New Technical Term: Canute Passages

There are those who attempt to make music theory into a fully-rational and systematic endeavour, but those of use working at the sharp end of music-making* know that it is messier than that. Yes, you can organise a lot of it into logical patterns that help you generalise and draw inferences, but a lot of music theory is about finding ways to identify and make sense of stuff that happens in real life.

So, from the Concrete-Experiential school of music theory that brought you the Icicle 7th (Karri Quan), the Phnert (Lori Lyford) and Swooshythroughiness (me), I bring you the concept of Canute passages.

On Milestones and Skill Level

I noticed as I entered my most recent arrangement into my master list spreadsheet that the one I’m working on next will be the 250th row. I’d not been consciously counting charts, not least because it’s always a little ambiguous which ones to count. My master list doesn’t include some of my earliest efforts, nor a handful of throw-away pieces done for specific occasions (though it does include others throw-aways, such as the ones NoteOrious sang on Radio 1). And of course it doesn’t mention all the ones I started and never got round to finishing. But it does include quite a few that I don’t make available for various reasons (copyright complications, or simply that I don’t like them any more.)

But anyway, now that I’ve noticed the milestone, it sounds like quite a big number. I guess that’s what happens when you keep doing something for a lot of years.

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