Soapbox: The SAI Show Package Final

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soapboxI spent some of last weekend watching and listening the webcasts from the Sweet Adelines Convention in Nashville, and the ‘show package’ finals had me thinking again about the nature of entertainment and its relationship with competition. I’ve had these thoughts before, but I thought I’d mention them now as they’re current.

Now, the idea of the show package finals is, as I understand it, that since what the quartets do most of the year is go and sing on shows, it makes sense to frame the contests so that the people who are best at singing on shows win. Otherwise you get that split between the ‘contest’ form of the art and the ‘real life’ form, and you could invite a winning quartet onto your show and find they only really did the competitive form which, while fine its way, doesn’t make for a balanced show set. All well and good so far.

Except what seems to happen instead is that you get a ‘contest’ form of the show package itself, which doesn’t look very much like what you actually get on shows in real life. I’ve been to a bunch of barbershop shows over the years, and my experience is that most quartets and choruses do a reasonable job of putting together a package. They understand the need for balance in programming and for enough presentational framing to link the set into a whole and connect it with the audience. A few manage to mess it up, and it’s nearly always by talking too much.

And this was my primary gripe with the contest packages. There was this collection of ensembles that are really expert in singing, who had got to the finals by being expert in singing, and they insisted on talking at great length to much less effect. I spent a while wondering whether music is just inherently more entertaining than speech, but then I remembered that there are things like plays and performance poetry and stand up comedy that work almost entirely by speech and don’t come over as inherently impoverished in their entertainment value. So, it’s not that.

But these forms of entertainment take as much care in crafting the material as song-writers take in crafting musical material. If you hear a not-very-good stand up comic, you suddenly appreciate the pithiness, the sense of trajectory and the timing of a good one. There’s no white space, and there are no inefficiencies in the build to the punchline. Everything is either part of the set-up or part of the pay-off.

The contest show packages, by contrast, just don’t in the main seem to be very well-crafted. But the songs, of course, are – barbershop mostly works with songs that have survived the rigours of the marketplace of popular music to achieve the status of ‘well-known’. So you get this strange alternation between professional-quality material in the songs with amateur-quality material in the spiels. And you just want them to shut up talking and sing again, because that’s the good bit.

You can say the same of the delivery as well as the material. I’m just guessing, but I just don’t get the impression that the spoken material gets anything like the amount of rehearsal as the sung material does. The ensembles probably do a vocal warm-up each time they rehearse, for example; do they also do an acting/comic warm-up? They probably spend a lot of time on elements of ‘craft’ such as matching their vowels and duetting; do they have equivalent rehearsal techniques to hone the basic skills for their spoken material? For every minute of finals package, spoken or sung, how many hours have been poured into speaking versus singing skills over the past year? If it’s not in something like direct proportion, quartets are just asking to come over worse as soon as they stop singing and start to talk.

Now, barbershop groups are obviously primarily musical ensembles. They might quite reasonably say that they don’t want to spend 50% of their rehearsal time on acting skills. That’s fine, I wouldn’t either. But I’d enjoy it much more if they could therefore cut the amateurish schtick and spend more time singing – just like they do on shows in real life.

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