On Wednesday I visited the newly-renamed Harmony InSpires chorus near Oxford for a coaching session. They are one of the many success stories of barbershop choruses transforming themselves through running Learn to Sing courses, having more than doubled their numbers since the start of the autumn. If they get many more members they’re going to need to find a bigger hall to rehearse in!
One thing I found fascinating, though, was that coming in as an outsider, I really couldn’t tell easily who were the new members and who had been singing with them for years unless someone told me explicitly one way or the other. Just observing the body language as they sang and the social interactions, there was an incredible sense of consistency and of belonging to the same social and musical world, even though more than half had only joined in the last few weeks.
So I have several hypotheses as to why this might be the case:
- The process of rebranding the chorus – a new name, a new rehearsal venue – has given everyone a common new identity which overrides the sense of ‘newcomers’ versus ‘longstanding members’.
- The people who continued from the course to join the chorus were self-selected to be more like the existing members. This wouldn’t be a conscious process of course, it would simply be a case that people who felt, ‘oh yes, I fit in here’ would be more likely to want to continue.
- The ‘chameleon effect’ (which is the process by which people pick up each other’s behaviours and ways of being) works especially well when there is a collectivistic ethos. So the barbershop habit of equating musical harmony with social harmony would make people more likely to become more alike. Moreover, their director, Helen, has a very inclusive, consensus-building leadership style, which would intensify this.
- And of course they’d all share a common relationship with the songs they sing. Music has its own bodily patterns, both in the literal sense of using the voices (everyone’s breath has to last for the same length of phrases) and in the way it shapes experience (tempo, dynamics, emotional shape).
The process by which people develop common musical body languages is something I write about in Choral Conducting and the Construction of Meaning . But it is striking to see it happening so thoroughly and so quickly as in Harmony InSpires.