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Friday night's panel: Brian Kay, Amy Bebbington, Neil Ferris, Jackie Roxborough, Helen Smith, Rachel Greaves, Pamela Cook and John RutterFriday night's panel: Brian Kay, Amy Bebbington, Neil Ferris, Jackie Roxborough, Helen Smith, Rachel Greaves, Pamela Cook and John Rutter
The last weekend in August has become the traditional weekend for the Association of British Choral Directors to hold their annual convention. This year’s was on my home patch in Birmingham, and was celebrating the organisation’s 25th anniversary.

The plenary sessions on Friday evening and Saturday morning accordingly took an overview of British choral life – the first looking at trends from the last 25 years (and into the future), the second considering the ‘state of the choral nation’. In fact, the two debates became quite interrelated, with themes from the Friday evening re-emerging within the ostensibly different subjects under review on the Saturday morning. As you might imagine, we had both utopic and dystopic visions of British choral life: depending on whom you ask, we are either in better or worse shape than we have been for years!

Of the things that had changed in the last 25 years, several panellists identified the increase in world music (or possibly world-music-derived western compositions) in the choral repertoire, and a concomitant turning away from the historical classical canon. The concentration of music by living composers in the BBC Choir of the Year was presented as evidence for this, although you could equally have looked to the convention’s gala concert. Billed as ‘a celebration of choral music from the Renaissance to the presnt day’, it included one piece from the 16th century, two from the 19th, and the rest was all by living composers, including the premiere of Kerry Andrew’s The World Hath Voice, which was commissioned for the event,

Panellists also identified changes in performance style: there’s much more performance from memory these days, plus a lot more movement and/or variety in staging. (As an aside I find it interesting that the idiom most speakers there used was singing music ‘by heart’, rather than ‘from memory’.) Brian Kay attributed this shift to the televising of Choir of the Year competitions: people seeing themselves on television ‘suddenly made them realise how terrible they looked!’. Funnily enough, barbershop singers usually attribute this shift in classical performance to the influence of choral genres such as barbershop and gospel which challenged the supremacy of classical choral music through these competitions, but Brian didn’t mention that at all.

There were also some interesting comments on the relationship of British choral music to the wider world. Amy Bebbington contrasted the emphasis on good sight-reading that allows UK choirs to get through music efficiently with a more systematic and rehearsal-intensive approach in the US. Peter Broadbent, on the other hand, portrayed the resourcing level that allowed state-supported choirs from the Eastern bloc back in the 80s to rehearse in depth as facilitating a level of musicianship and expression that British choirs couldn’t touch.

A notion emerged during both sessions of a ‘lost generation’ of 30/40-somethings, who ‘hadn’t learned to sing at school’. The picture of choral life presented was of traditional choral societies with ageing memberships at one end, and a lively development of 20-something graduates from youth and college choirs setting up their own chamber choirs at the other.

Now, as a 30/40-something myself, I wondered about this generalisation. It could be that, as I am someone who has sung all my life, I have an unduly rosy view of my age-group’s access to music. But I also recognise the limitations of the music education on general offer in my youth: we did do a fair amount of singing in school, at least up to the age of 12/13 when the boys’ voices started to change, but only those of us who had instrumental lessons learned to read music. So, choirs that expect people to come in with literacy ready-made are going to have somewhat thinner pickings amongst my peers than amongst the contemporaries of my mother.

But it’s not that these folk aren’t singing. If you look at choirs that work by ear, or by mixed methods, they have loads of singers who are neither conspicuously young nor old. Community choirs, rock choirs, barbershop choruses: all these are set up to take adults off the street and turn them in to singers.

The debates thus gave a vivid example of a phenomenon I analysed in my book on choral conducting: of what counts as ‘choral’. On one hand, the word is understood in a very global way, of any instance of people singing together as a community – which is what makes sense of the ABCD’s involvement in the Sing Up programme. But on the other, it assumes a specific set of practices that can be quite a circumscribed subset of the global category. In this case, the assumptions were of universal and advanced literacy, and of rehearsal methods derived from the cathedreal/collegiate tradition.

Nobody said that that’s what counts as choral; you had to infer it from the shared terms underlying the discussion. The pride in British sight-reading, for instance (and the slightly snotty comments about the quality of sight-singing in the opening session); the derogatory asides about barbershop by two of the presenters; the overwhelmingly white set of delegates and exhibitors.

And I think the convention caters for this subset of British musical life really quite well. But I also suspect that these hidden assumptions may mean that the association may be missing some opportunities to serve choral music in the wider sense.

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