BinG! Harmony College 2016

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Welcoming the assembled delegatesWelcoming the assembled delegates

Over the weekend I was back in Oberwesel with my friends from BinG! (Barbershop in Germany) for their Harmony College. Like last year, I come home with a note-book full of ideas to digest and a heart full of the nourishment you get from events that are intensive both musically and interpersonally.

As an experience for repeat visitors, it offered both continuity and familiarity, and a sense of change and renewal. You could say this of the faculty list, which included returners from last year like me, returners from previous years, and faces completely new to BinG!, and also of the content and organisation of the school. New for this year were opportunities for quartet singers to participate in the college choruses, a taster ‘extreme quartet experience’ scheme intended to make quartet activity accessible to those who didn’t have a quartet to come to the school with, as well as a different selection of classes on offer.

This balance of stability and development is a deliberate policy. The organising team are assiduous and persistent in seeking both feedback from faculty and participants on what could be improved, and new ideas of what they could do next. I know everybody thinks they do this, but not every organisation builds it into the culture to the extent BinG! does. It shows not just in the content and execution of their offering, but also their delight if you remark on something that they have implemented in response to this process. They are emotionally invested in the process of renewal.

Another aspect of the organisational culture that I noticed last year but don’t think I commented on at the time is that I didn’t experience any sexism there. When I remarked on that to my hosts, they responded in terms of how they have been committed to it being a mixed organisation from the get-go. And I am sure that is part of it: female, male and mixed ensembles compete against each other, and the exchange of personnel from year to year sees the mixed form acting as a medium of exchange for skills and experience between the two single-sex forms. There is equality built into the music-making.

But that’s not where I noticed the experience of equality so directly; I noticed it in the day-to-day interactions between people who participate in the organisation as well as those who lead it. Specifically: I was virtually never patronised or mansplained to. For sure, I was there in a role with a degree of status, but you know, the credentials for which I’d been invited to be on the faculty cannot be guaranteed to protect me from being talked down to. And, more to the point, you shouldn’t have to have a PhD etc to avoid systematic condescension.

But my goodness it is something to cherish. It occurs to me that one of the reasons I enjoy working in all-female groups is this feeling of being safe from sexism. You can open up and be nourished by the process in a way that isn’t quite possible when you always have to be slightly braced against the psychological wounds that small acts of unconscious sexism inflict in daily life. It is most refreshing to experience that in a mixed-sex environment. BinG! is blazing a trail in this respect not just for barbershop, but most of western musical life. Well, and life outside music too.

Talking of opening up for nourishment, I also wanted to comment on Sunday night’s Chorditorium, and its astonishing level of joie de vivre. It was slightly more formal than some chorditoria are (is that the correct plural?), in that it had concert seating rather than cabaret style, which kept everyone very focused on the performances. (Not that there was room to do it any other way, but that was the effect of the set-up.) But it was less formal than a concert, as the performers could come up to the stage from within the audience, and people could pop in and out for comfort breaks and/or to fetch drinks. This balance gave it both a great sense of occasion for the performers to rise to, and a feeling of being a very safe environment so they could take risks.

And take risks they did! We saw all kinds of repertoire that you wouldn’t bring to the contest stage of the Friday night, and a commensurate variety of approaches to performance. But the delight wasn’t just in the creative imagination brought to the content, it was in the generosity and freedom that performers brought to the stage, and the support and celebration that the audience reciprocated with.

We always say that audiences are very ready to forgive mistakes, that it’s the spirit of the performance that matters. And on Sunday night in Oberwesel, we saw 20 or so (I lost count) performances by people who had taken that to heart. Yes, there were some mistakes, but nobody minded. Because we were so excited by the artistic leaps people were taking and which they couldn’t have taken if they were braced against the fear of error.

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