Loved-Up with LABBS

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LABBS Beacon of Harmony: displayed in the Convention history roomLABBS Beacon of Harmony: displayed in the Convention history roomLast weekend saw the 40th-anniversary celebrations of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers culminate at our annual Convention. I chose my title to report on it for both personal and analytical reasons. I’ll be selfish and talk about the personal stuff first, and then leave you with the broader analysis of the event, as the more useful take-away for other people wanting to craft wonderful experiences for their memberships (or, as I felt it this weekend, their tribes.)

So, I was feeling specifically loved-up as an arranger. The most obvious reason for this was being honoured with one of the 40th anniversary awards for contributions to the association, specifically for my arranging efforts. Which was lovely in itself, but they also said a whole load of other nice things about me before calling me up to receive it. There is nothing like being told publicly that you’ve made a difference to make you feel like you belong. Oh, I’m getting all teary again just writing this. Do excuse me.

The less visible reason for feeling loved-up as an arranger was the chance to bond with the people performing music this weekend that I had arranged for them. I had three premieres in the contest (one from Harmony InSpires, two from Fascinating Rhythm), one premiere in a show (from Cottontown Chorus), and one in the afterglow (also from Cottontown). Additionally, Amersham A Cappella used the chart I did for them last year as part of their package to upgrade their silver medal to gold.

Any arranger will tell you, it is a wonder and a delight to hear the voices in your head come alive and sing back to you. It is also wonderful to experience how lit up people get about music arranged especially for them. Jo Dean, Fascinating Rhythm’s director, made a very percipient comment about how commissioning music has helped her grow as a director: it both requires and allows her to be more creative, as there’s no-one to copy and all the space to have her own ideas. No wonder she and her singers greet me with shining eyes if I’ve helped them have that experience.

By the way, I think Fascinating Rhythm may just have made history within LABBS (and possibly British barbershop as a whole?) by bringing a package of two contest premieres in two consecutive years. Anyone want to check that stat for us?

So, onto the wider loved-up feeling. The event was well crafted to produce something of a charismatic encounter, specifically the euphoric fellow-feeling known as ‘communion’ or ‘flux’. Interestingly, of the key elements for a charismatic encounter, it only really worked with two of them: the sense of a cause, and the structure of interpersonal bonds. We had neither the sense of crisis, of an external threat to mobilise against, nor a demagogic leader to act as galvaniser. (Our Chair, Brenda Rothwell, did a glorious job, but she led as statesman, not messiah.)

And, you know, much as I enjoy a good bit of galvanising, for this occasion, the love and celebratory feel were perfect without it. The cause was the classic barbershop ethic of Harmony, in the double sense that I explored back in Chapter 2 of my first book. The celebrations had been planned with a purposeful vision to connect and celebrate the membership, and the resultant activities were well designed to forge the interconnected bonds that precipitate communion.

In the year since the last Convention, a beacon of harmony has been handed round from club to club around the association, precipitating multiple regional get-togethers throughout the country, and then delivered back to the Convention by last year’s champion chorus, the White Rosettes. Accompanying the beacon was an anniversary tag which choruses were encouraged to learn and send in a video recording, which were edited into a wonderful mash-up and virtual choir rendition. So, everyone arrived at the convention feeling primed for the celebration and pre-bonded, and had those bonds affirmed on arrival.

Another wonderful idea was the history room. This included displays from individual clubs, archive and oral history videos, the book of remembrance, and the current year’s entries into the annual yearbook competition. These were all laid out around a central table serving a complimentary glass of prosecco and cupcake to everyone registered for convention. It was just such a warm and welcoming space. You wandered around sipping your bubbly, exclaiming over very young-looking pictures of old friends, and then having to stop and chat to said friends between the cake-crumbs.

And then the emotional heart of the convention, for me, was the Saturday night show. This was in part due to its placing within the event. Everyone who needed to perform in contest had done so and could now relax, and the process of going through the contest rituals had brought everyone deep into the barbershop world, far away from the distractions of real life. And then, after the warm-up acts of the current BABS gold medal chorus and guest quartet O.C. Times (how often do they get non-prime billing, eh?), we were treated to the history of the association in quartets.

Framed by three songs from the QCs Chorus, we saw a series of 11 quartets from the association’s history re-form for a single song each. The earliest, the Conchords, won in 1980, and the next, Downtown Express from 1992, were on the show at one of my earliest barbershop experiences. After that, I remembered them all. It was a wonderful way to connect us all back to our shared history. Barbershop, as a culture, has always had the bonding power of nostalgia as one of its primary emotional registers, and this show harnessed that beautifully for the occasion.

I didn't see much of convention this year, but as a BABS member, I think the men's association has a lot to learn from LABBS about how these kinds of events are put together. BABS 40 felt like it differed from previous conventions only by how much money was thrown at guest performers. By and large, I think LABBS does a much better job of delivering on the fellowship that BABS advertises.

Interesting observation, thank you.

I find it hard to make any coherent comparison myself, as the BABS 40th came the same week as my father's funeral, so my emotional responses were all over the shop. I have to say that my barbershop family did a wonderful job of supporting me through that weekend though, just when I most needed it!

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