A Cappella in the Algarve
I spent last weekend in the Algarve, working with what are, as far as I know, Portugal’s only barbershop quartet and chorus. When Sylvy Wilks moved out to Portugal four years ago she wasn’t intending to introduce a whole new musical genre there, but she quite quickly found herself part of the local network of singing and performance groups. And when she was asked if she might help re-form a choir that had folded, she chose to make it a barbershop chorus as that was where her primary experience lay, having learned to sing herself with what was then Chiltern Harmony in Amersham. So by a combination of pure luck and the gumption to make things happen, Bella A Cappella was formed.
The main purpose of my visit was to help the quartet, Cleftomania, prepare for their first contest at the Spanish Association of Barbershop Singers convention next month. As well as competing, they will also be taking along a delegation from the chorus, partly as moral support, but mostly to show them why people get so excited about the convention experience. This is only the 2nd SABS convention, but it’s clear that last year’s inaugural event has already done a lot to strengthen the network of barbershop groups in the Iberian peninsula.
One of the challenges that new ensembles face, even more than questions of skill, is confidence. Both quartet and chorus have areas where they are already quite adept, and areas which are still work in progress, but without a ready-made community of people already singing in this style in the area, they lack yardsticks to work out clearly which are which. Hence, self-doubt is always nearer the surface than in where a musical tradition is already well embedded. The up-coming convention is therefore going to be especially useful – not just for the formal scoring feedback the quartet will get in contest, but possibly more importantly for the chorus members to witness a range of other performances to put their own efforts into context.
During the coaching process I also gained some useful insights into the relationship between confidence, accuracy and musical awareness. It is no surprise that people feel more confident when they’re sure of the accuracy of what they’re singing. And it’s also true that people sing more securely when they’re feeling confident. A common cause for sagging pitch, for instance, is uncertainty undermining the breath support.
Musical awareness is also good for accuracy of course. This is why duetting is such a powerful coaching and rehearsal tool. It gives you the chance to separate out the roles of performing and monitoring the performance, so each singer gets thechance to dedicate themselves either to singing or to listening to and watching other singers. Cleftomania really embraced this technique and produced some quite stunning improvements using it. The sound became clearer, richer, fuller, and a lot more secure: it transformed the music from four parts into six duets.
And it occurred to me as I reflected on the weekend that this is partly for the obvious musical reasons: the greater your insight into how all the parts work together, the more you have to hang your hat on, and therefore the easier it is to keep on track. But it’s also to do with the psychology of confidence.
When you’re in a negative emotional state, your sphere of perception shrinks. Anxiety cuts you off from the world around you – you get into that tunnel-vision state of sheer survival. You literally can’t hear the other parts if you start to panic. Breadth of awareness and confidence thus have a similar feedback loop as accuracy and confidence – either pair can get into either an upward or a downward spiral.
The magic of duetting is its capacity to get this spiral going in the right direction. And when we say someone is secure on their part, it’s a statement as much about their sense of personal safety as it is of their literal accuracy on their notes.