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The Biggest Barbershop Bash in Europe

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Last year's LABBS champions closing the monumental two-day chorus contestLast year's LABBS champions closing the monumental two-day chorus contest

Well, where to start on reflecting on the four days of Europe’s best barbershop that just took place in Bournemouth? I was very touched when several people during the event said they were looking forward to this write-up, but now of course I am all anxious about disappointing them! (Just trust the process, Liz – follow the thoughts where they lead you and some people will also be interested – the ones who aren’t will find their needs met elsewhere. Pep talk over.)

I have been looking forward to this event for months. LABBS Convention is my regular autumn party, the British women’s association being the organisation I joined when I first encountered barbershop, in which I was a contest judge for many years, and for whom I now serve as Chorus Director Development Specialist. I have a lot of friends there, and work with a good many groups to develop the performances they bring to the event.

Added to this annual pleasure was the excitement of the four-yearly European Barbershop Convention that brings together the best performers from organisations from Finland to Spain, along with a smattering of our North American barbershop family who have figured out that this is a happening place to be. In recent years I have had opportunities to make friends from these organisations, especially in Germany and Holland, and it was such fun to welcome them to my home patch.

The interchange was delightful in both directions. A lot of LABBS members would never normally get the opportunity to hear our visiting performers. We have some fine home-grown ensembles, but adding the cream from other nations into the programme meant that the balance of listening experience was skewed to a significantly higher-quality average than usual. This has to be good for the artistic growth of us all. Moreover, the size of the chorus contest meant it had to be spread over two days, which meant that everyone could have a whole day when they could watch performances and attend Fringe events. Usually in a one-day contest, a lot of participants are so busy preparing their own contributions that they are very limited in the number of other groups they can see.

On the flip side, I was very pleased for my home organisation that we had some fine groups to showcase for our visitors. If you are asking people to go to all the trouble and expense to come to your party, you want to be able to offer them some musical reward for their efforts. I was very proud of the skill and imagination my compatriots brought to their performances: it was wonderful to feel we could offer some high-quality entertainment to our visitors to thank them for making our regular event extra special.

(I suspect I am being rather effusive. Can you tell I came home feeling rather loved-up with it all?)

I have been saying for months that one of my ambitions for the event was for our international friends to go home saying, ‘Blimey, they do interesting music in LABBS!’ Barbershop contests across the world have suffered for years from drawing on a rather limited range of repertoire, and it is such a pity if the primary response to a performance people have worked really hard at is disappointment because you’ve already heard that song three times. I wanted that not to be the experience in Bournemouth.

(As an aside: the problem isn’t just the issue of the style definition limiting what you can sing in the barbershop style – though that is a contributing factor. It’s also the way you get songs that come into fashion, sung by everyone and their dog, and then dropped because everyone’s bored of them. If you look at what counts as ‘same-old’ now compared with 20 years ago, there are a lot of different songs. But the dynamic remains of thinking, ‘Oh no not this again’ about a song that a few years ago you used to enjoy.)

We had a few repetitions, but for an event that went on for four full days, we also had plenty to keep us engaged and excited. And the old standards sound a lot better when you only hear them once or twice each. I think I counted 14 arrangements receiving premieres in the chorus contest that had been commissioned for the event by LABBS choruses and/or from arrangers from LABBS. (Rather than listing them here I am thinking to put a playlist together once the convention videos are up on youtube.)

I am of course pleased to have been a contributor to that number (oh, and to have had two of them in European medal-winning performances, if you don’t mind my mentioning it). But I am even more pleased to see so many more arrangers active and contributing. Fifteen years ago, you just didn’t see this happening.

And our visitors reciprocated! I don’t know how many of them were singing home-sourced or brand-new arrangements (I got some song info about a few, but there is a physical limit to how many people you can interrogate in four days when you also have a stupendous amount of music to listen to), but they certainly brought music to the stage that was fresh to British ears.

I don’t know where the next European Convention will be in four years’ time, but I already know I want to be there. I do think it’s a good idea to move it around, to share the benefits it brings to the membership of the host organisation.*


*If anyone wanted a suggestion, I have Sweden on my ‘must visit one day’ list, and they do very good barbershop there. I know my preferences aren’t the only factor to consider, but just sayin’.

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