Thoughts on the Shapes of Events

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Since the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention the other week, I’ve been mulling about the emotional shape of events, and what happens when you make changes to them. The specific case is the addition of the Mixed Chorus contest to the last day of the BABS Convention in the last two years, the day after what has traditionally been the emotional focal point of the event, the Quartet Final on Sunday afternoon.

A friend remarked that it felt a bit like the end of Wimbledon, when the men’s final had finished but the mixed doubles were still playing. I think this is an interesting comparison, not least because it captures the sense in both that the mixed genre has lower status.

There are several things that create this sense of being secondary, many of which derive from the timetabling, which does directly disadvantage the participating ensembles. They have a much smaller audience than the other contests, for example, as many people leave on the Sunday night. It is also the only contest not to be followed by an afterglow, which means that the participants don’t get to network with each other very much, or get integrated into the wider barbershop community.

The second of these reveals itself as a more significant handicap the more I think about it. One of the points of this contest was to open the convention up to people who might not otherwise sing barbershop, and to an extent it has succeeded in that. But its placement leaves them on the outside of the community – they miss out on the congratulations from audience members that a new ensemble in any of the contests enjoys as a matter of course, and they miss out on introductions to people who could be useful contacts to help them on their musical journey.

They also potentially miss out on hearing the best the genre has to offer. Quite a lot of Monday’s competitors (particularly those who already sang barbershop) came along for the whole convention anyway, and thus heard guest performers Lemon Squeezy and the Kings Singers, as well as the British contest winners. But those who only came for the day got to hear nothing else except – possibly, depending on their place in the running order – a couple of other competitors in their own contest.

Listening to other performers is how you grow as a musician, as well as how you get inspired by a style. It is arguably therefore even more important to offer this opportunity to visitors to your musical world than to its existing inhabitants.

One of the things I have been mulling over is the comparison with the mixed quartet contest that has for the last few years has been held at LABBS Conventions. This has suffered a bit from the ‘everyone drifting off home before the end’ syndrome, but not to such a great extent. Partly I think this is because LABBS Convention is usually a day shorter anyway, so people aren’t so ‘barbershopped-out’ by the last morning. The mixed quartet scene is more intra-mural too – all its participants are already barbershoppers and thus already integrated into the barbershop community. They thus have more of a support base ready to come and watch, and are more likely to come for the whole convention anyway.

Interestingly, though, I felt that 2016’s mixed quartet contest had more of these difficulties than previous years. This was the first year that it was presented by Barbershop in Harmony (the body that coordinates collaborations between British barbershop organisations) rather than hosted by LABBS. BinH are of course an eminently appropriate group to take ownership of this contest, but the consequence of their doing was placing it slightly later on the Sunday (compounding the drifting-off factor) and after the LABBS closing ceremony.

I found the latter an almost insuperable obstacle to listening, and stayed for much less of the contest than I had planned. The closing ceremony clearly was very effective at giving me emotional closure at the end of an intensive and rich weekend, and it was far too soon to re-open my ears again for a new event.

This year of course the mixed quartet contest has moved to coincide to BABS Prelims, as LABBS has plenty enough going on with the European Convention. But I hope that the European Convention model demonstrates that it is possible to embed BinH-hosted contests in single-organisation events so as to offer a more emotionally-integrated experience to both singers and audience.

There were other ways in which the Mixed Chorus contest felt a bit marginalised – the running order wasn’t published in advance, for instance, and there were no mic-warmers/coolers to frame the contests.

It’s all very well having these criticisms, you say, but what could we do instead? The main suggestion that came to mind was to swap the position in the schedule with the massed sing on Sunday morning. Holding the contest between 11 and 12 on the Sunday instead of the Monday would mean that all participants could stay on to hear the quartet final, even if they were going home that day, and have some social time with other convention-goers after their performance.

Another idea would be to get Heavy Medals chorus over for a show-spot and to mic-warm/cool. Wouldn’t it be lovely for people who are exploring what is in the UK a very new form of the genre to hear it done by people with experience of doing it well?

The more general point – and the one to which my title alludes – is that events bring with them a narrative structure, and the effectiveness of any one element depends not just on its own content, but its place in that structure. Adding a new character and sub-plot to your story after the main plot has already reached its resolution isn’t the best way to keep people interested to the end of the movie.

Correction: I have been informed by a reader that Barbershop in Harmony actually took the mixed quartet contest over from 2015, not 2016. Thanks Andrea!

My comments about the emotional shape of the event, though, are based on the 2016 experience. Looking back, I think I missed both the closing ceremony and a lot of the contest in 2015 during a long lunch with a friend I don't see often enough. It could happen to anyone...

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