LABBS Convention 2014

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Cheshire Chord Co in their winning performanceCheshire Chord Co in their winning performance

In many ways this last weekend was very typical for the one that takes October into November. It is the standard time of year for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers to hold their annual convention, and it was back in one of their frequently-used convention venues, the Harrogate International Centre. But there was one strange thing for me: it was the first LABBS convention since 1997 at which I didn’t spend a day or more behind the judges’ table.

There were obvious ways in which I noticed the difference. I had more time to hang out and chat to friends (and also to have conversations relevant to my new role in LABBS looking after director education.) I could pop out during the day for a breath of fresh air. I could do some coaching - of which more in my next post.

I also started to notice ways in which my experience of the contest performances was different. I have always enjoyed listening differently as an audience member than as a judge, but with a whole weekend in this mode I got much more deeply into it. Without the filter of your scoring category you can both attend more holistically and get interested in random details as they catch your attention. Without the obligation to summarise the experience into a single score, you can listen more open-endedly, developing themes of attention from one performance to the next.

Indeed, I think I irritated quite a few people who wanted my opinion about who was likely to win by not actually having formed an opinion. I had opinions about all kinds of things, but as I had no influence over or responsibility towards the results, I felt quite que sera sera about it. It was clear there had been some very good performances, and we were guaranteed a good set of medallists, and I was happy to see who they were and in which order when it was announced.

(I do realise that is a bit odd, by the way. One of the pleasures for contest audiences has always been forming opinions and then seeing if the judges agree. So I need to find a more gracious way out of these conversations when I’m not playing that particular game!)

One of the things I took to thinking about was the dynamic by which you get a particular song or two that is suddenly very popular. A year or two back we reached peak ‘If I Give My Heart to You’, and this year it was ‘If You Love Me, Really Love Me’ that dominated the quartet contest. Both of these are well established pieces of repertoire and you wouldn’t be surprised to hear them more than once, but why this sudden, intense popularity?

I suspect it’s mostly just random - in the same way that it was probably just a coincidence that so many quartets chose purple outfits for their semi-final performances (and so few did for the finals). But the comparison got me thinking: when two consecutive quartets turned up in identical frocks, there was a murmur of sympathy. If it were as socially awkward to turn up with the same song as it is to do so in the same outfit, would our contests sound different?

While we’re on frocks, I also got thinking about outfits, rhythmic shape and body language. I was getting distracted by drapey, flowing dresses in songs with snappy rhythms. The singers were clearly moving with the rhythm inside the dresses, but the fabric was hiding the precision and moving in an unsynchronised response to it. I came to the conclusion that drapey dresses are predicated on a stillness of body language, posed on a pedestal like a Greek goddess. If you want to look coherent while grooving, you need something more suited to scampering around the stage as Cheshire Chord Company did to win the chorus contest.

So these are the kinds of things that teem in my brain when absolved from the discipline of the Music Category Description. The one other thing I wanted to put in my post-Convention post that hasn’t yet found a convenient place to sit is how excited I was by Amersham A Cappella’s ballad, David Wright’s arrangement of ‘One Enchanted Evening’, which is the most imaginative bit of barbershop arranging I have heard in goodness knows how long and really lifted the chorus to new and wonderful heights. And I don’t mind if you tell him I said that.

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