Harmony in Holland

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The weekend's judging panel: Alison, Alan, David, Liz, Linda, Rod and AnnekeThe weekend's judging panel: Alison, Alan, David, Liz, Linda, Rod and AnnekeI spent last weekend in Veldhoven for the combined Holland Harmony and the Dutch Association of Barbershop Singers convention. It was a nice size of convention – with a total of 21 each of competing quartets and choruses, it had enough participants to give a good sense of occasion, but neither contest was too long to feel like an endless slog. And there was time for every group to have a follow-up coaching session, too, which is so much more useful for onward development than mere spoken or written feedback.

Having judged at the last Holland Harmony convention two years ago, it seemed to me that both the number and standard of competitors had increased noticeably.

Indeed, groups from both organisations found that they had improved their scores while placing no higher or even lower than last time: the health of the organisation overall comes at a cost of some disappointment for individual ensembles. I’m sure that all are genuinely pleased that barbershop in Holland is doing well – but still, it can feel that as fast as you climb the mountain, someone is piling extra rocks on top of it. On the bright side, being part of an event with lots of good performances brings a buzz of excitement that boosts the spirits and makes it easier to take these things in your stride.

One excellent idea for the convention was to have a ‘wildcard’ slot on the Saturday night show. After the announcements of the results of the chorus competitions for each organisation, one non-medal-winning chorus was picked from a hat (a rather fetching sparkly hat at that) to perform on the biggest show of the convention. The idea is to give performers who haven’t necessarily had the chance to sing on a major show the opportunity to do so in order to build their experience. The Singing Pearls were the lucky winners this year.

Barbershop is primarily an English-language genre, and the language skills of the Dutch put their visiting English and American judges to shame – they are most impressive. Still, there were a couple of things I learned from the cross-language coaching experience that I might not have guessed otherwise.

The first was dealing with a slightly choppy delivery of the lyric – something I found myself dealing with in several of the coaching sessions. In an English-speaking group, you would typically see this as a technique issue to do with continuity of breath and how people are articulating the text. These were issues here too, of course, but there was also the sense that because the groups were singing in their second language, they were having to engage the language-processing part of the brain more actively than you do when singing in your first language

I found this interesting because I have dealt with language issues in both teaching and singing scenarios before, but not quite like this. In teaching, you see the extra cognitive load of working in a second language in people needing more time to think – so you slow down and leave longer gaps between ideas. In singing, people usually approach a second language phonetically. They care about the meaning of the text, for sure, and may often have enough grasp of the language to follow the sense as they sing, but the actual pronunciation of word sounds is treated as an exercise in vowel shaping and articulation. The musical or sonic elements of the text rather than the conceptual become the vehicle for rehearsal. But where people are singing in a language they can speak quite well, but is still not their first language, it seems that the words start to overwhelm the music a little because it demands that bit more brain-space, but they have too much grasp of the sense to let it disintegrate into a phonetic exercise.

I started off dealing with this as I would normally by getting them bubbling, as it helps so much with the technical side of breath continuity and resonance, and the musical side of thinking melodically. (Also, the chorus coaching sessions were on Sunday morning after a late afterglow, so I figured the voices would need a gentle start to the day!) And as ever, it worked its magic, but I was quite taken by just how melodic and un-wordy the lines became without any further intervention.

It was as if taking the words out temporarily had not only removed technical obstacles, but had also allowed the singers to access and activate the musical part of their brain so that when they put the words back in, there was a much better cognitive balance between melodic and linguistic processing. This is clearly part of the magic in bubbling any time, but I didn’t see the effect so much until working with the more over-active linguistic engagement of the second-language singer.

The other interesting cross-language moment was when getting a chorus to duet, and encouraging them to give each other feedback. The discussion was a little slow to take off, so I pointed out that since the point was to tell each other what they were hearing (rather than me), they may as well do it in Dutch. The discussion became a lot livelier of course when we lost the barrier between perception and expression.

But what was more interesting was how empowering it was for the participants. You can say all you like that the point of an exercise is in the singers’ perceptions, but the person leading the exercise still has a power to validate or deny what they say they hear. When they could say anything and I couldn’t understand any of it, they were far less inhibited and more involved than any other group I’ve worked with on this. It’s always a magic moment as a teacher or coach when you can let go of the reins and let people take control of their own learning, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen so dramatically before. It got me wondering how I can recreate the effect in single-language situations.

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