BinG! Harmony College: Initial Impressions

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This was the view from my bedroom window...This was the view from my bedroom window...I’m starting writing this post on the train along the Rhine valley from Oberwesel to Frankfurt at dawn. After several days of glorious autumnal sunshine, the clouds are hanging down over the hilltops. In both guises, you can see why the early Romantics were so willing to mythologise this area.

I was about to write that this is almost incidental to the joy and richness the last few days have seen at BinG! Harmony College, but then I thought - maybe the setting helps more than you think. I suddenly remembered how I found myself at culturally rich events in green hilly landscapes in different countries in successive weeks of summer 2009 and wondering to what extent a landscape facilitates artistic growth.

Anyhow, the view is such that I am pretty sure I won’t get this post finished in this one trip, but I wanted to start getting the ideas down while the impressions are fresh.

So, Barbershop in Germany. One of the younger and smaller national organisations in the international barbershop community - founded in the early 1990s, it now has about 800 members - but one that has established itself as a force to be reckoned with through both musical quality and innovation.

In particular, BinG! has systematically fostered mixed barbershop as well as the single-sex forms, primarily in its quartet scene, but also increasingly in its choruses too. It was by their initiative that a mixed quartet contest was added to the European Convention agenda (thereby kickstarting organisational recognition of the form in the UK) and they will be hosting the third World Mixed Quartet Championships in 2016. Watch out for their mixed chorus of quartet champions, Heavy Medals, who will be performing at the BHS International Convention in Nashville next summer.

This chorus was the first ensemble I heard last Wednesday when I arrived to join the Harmony College faculty, and my notes from that first day are full of observations about language and gesture. I don’t speak German (though of course I know quite a lot of random bits of vocabulary from being a musician - I recognised ‘stimmen’ and ‘Klang’ within the first few minutes of watching them), but it was very easy to follow the rehearsal nonetheless. The gestural vocabulary people used to discuss what was going on used exactly the same hand forms and movements that accompany rehearsals in English.

This is more interesting than it may seem at first sight. If you have sung barbershop with anyone from a different country, you will have lived this experience and probably just taken it as natural in the context of a shared musical community. But the very fact we do this so intuitively is itself fascinating.

There has been some debate in the gesture studies literature as to what extent spontaneous gesture is a cultural construct, part of and linked to the linguistic context it occurs in, and to what extent it is language-independent. On one hand, there are clearly documented differences in which different language communities use gesture conceptually - for instance, how they orient self and other in the physical world when giving directions. On the other, spontaneous, speech-accompanying gesture works in counterpoint to language - holistically capturing the central shape of a thought while language articulates it analytically and sequentially, bit by bit.

In the rehearsal context, gesture is indeed a cultural construct, but linked to a musical rather than a linguistic group. In my choral conducting book I documented how gestures moved fluidly between speech-accompaniment and conducting contexts - you get the same hand movement associated with a musical thought and a spoken statement about that musical quality - but I don’t think I had any examples of how the musical thoughts also transfer between languages. It does tend to confirm my conclusions that body language is a primary storage device of performance traditions.

You can also see how much of a style lives in the bodies of its proponents when you come across performers who have learned their music from notation without any significant connection with other performers in the genre. The quartet contest held on the first evening of Harmony College included a couple of ensembles who were attending for the first time, and were singing classic barbershop repertoire learned through the filters of a classical training.

This profile of performer can be rather hard done by in the barbershop judging system, which frames the discourse about stylistic appropriateness as if it were something that is defined by the notation. And for sure, texture, voicing and harmonic language are important elements in making barbershop barbershop. But patterns of delivery and pacing, vocal production, and the characteristic ensemble techniques that produce lock and ring are if anything more significant in producing performances that sound like barbershop. A quartet singing non-contest repertoire using stylistic sound and delivery sounds more genuinely barbershoppy than a quartet applying different performance approaches to contest repertoire: we heard both over the weekend, so could make that comparison directly.

But these performance elements are discussed in the judging discourses of the Singing and Presentation Categories as if they were natural, or neutrally ‘correct’ rather than aspects of genre-specific performance practice. There is nothing unnatural about singing something in time, or incorrect about staccato articulation; it’s merely not very barbershop.

Given that BinG! is attracting people from the country’s wider musical life to participate in their contests, it is an immensely helpful structure to hold the preliminary contest for their convention on the first evening of the college. This means that the coaches have heard the quartets and starting identifying their learning needs before they meet, and there are two full days to help these newcomers acquire the techniques and knowledge they need to produce more stylistic performances.

Working with these quartets was a very satisfying experience, as they came in with a high level of musicianship to begin with and so were able to adapt very readily. And I still remember what it was like to meet barbershop in adulthood as an already formed musician - how it is both exciting (new toy!) and confusing (they do it like what?).

Right, I still have lots of thoughts sloshing round my head from the weekend, but this post is quite long enough now, so I’ll carry on in my next one...

Hi Liz,

Very interesting read. Thank you for this analytical look at what happens when we sing. I was expecting some hints regarding our handling of the (for us) foreign language and was surprised there was none...

T'was good to finally meet you in person and to be able to discuss ideas! Keep the good work up!

'Servus' from Munich!

Hans-Jürgen

Heh - well since you mention it -

I have blogged in the past about the effect of singing in a foreign language and how it can interfere with legato. But actually, I was mostly very impressed with how everybody handled doing so much in their second language - both singing, and coaching/classes.

More of a revelation for me was the discovery that, on its home turf, German feels like a language I could learn to make sense of, rather than feel befuddled by (as I have done in past paper-based efforts to get to grips with it). It fell into the ears more easily than I expected, and the context let me infer more meaning from eye contact and body language than I was getting from the words alone. And of course, I got a bit of help from my friends :-)

And yes it was great to put faces to names I've only known in electronic forms hitherto!

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