LABBS at Harrogate

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Harrogate International Centre: viewed from aboveHarrogate International Centre: viewed from aboveLast weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers return to their favourite venue for their annual convention. It was a week earlier than its usual spot in the calendar this year, so it overlapped with the Sweet Adelines International Convention in Houston, where LABBS 2005 and 2009 champions Finesse were making history as the first British quartet to reach an international top-10 placing.

Barbershop is always a family affair, but I was noticing it much more than usual this year, partly because of this wider context of awareness surrounding the event. Finesse may have had to miss LABBS this year, but their lead’s mother was on stage competing in the quartet contest, and the their tenor’s mother-in-law was performing as part of the retiring champion chorus Amersham A Cappella and the QC’s chorus.

It was also cheering to see the LABBS Chair competing in the quartet contest, and winning the Most Improved Quartet award, while her two daughters picked up quartet bronze medals with Northern Vibe (both quartets pictured here).

I remarked a couple of years ago how the Ivy League chorus is helping to integrate the age profile of the association, partly as a way for the offspring of adult singers to have a meaningful way of participating in their parents’ hobby at an age when they might not yet be ready to join an adult chorus. It was cheering, therefore to see increasing numbers of these young women starting to appear in the main chorus contest as well as the Ivy League’s performances.

The QC’s also gave us the opportunity to notice how many of the current musical leaders in the association have had successful quartets as part of their journey. All of this year’s medallist chorus directors, as well as last year’s gold-medal chorus directors, were up there as past quartet champs, as well as the director of this year’s Most Improved Chorus, Fascinating Rhythm. Also spotted were two current and one trainee judge, two of whom also direct choruses.

This is interesting, since LABBS has something of a history of being both somewhat more interested in the chorus than the quartet form of the genre, and generally more successful at producing consistently good choruses than quartets. (There’s scope to investigate the causal relationships there.) But even with this mild cultural bias (and it is mild – not something I’d want to over-state), quartetting remains a primary training-ground for musical leadership, and arguably one with a more successful track record than director training.

(Not that I’d want to dispense with director training, as there are all sorts of specific things directors need to do that quartetting won’t teach you. But singing in quartet will build the ground-work of musicianship in a way that specific training cannot hope to do.)

I have remarked before that the quality of a contest seems to have a direct causal impact on the length of the subsequent afterglow, and this year’s convention seems to support that hypothesis. It was easily the highest-scoring LABBS contest I have ever scored (and my first, as a then shadow judge, was back in 1998), with 15 choruses achieving scores of 60 or more. And the afterglow still had plenty of life in it when I ducked out sometime after 3 am.

The next morning I was talking to Alan Hughes, tenor of guest performers the Great British Barbershop Boys, and asked if he’d had a late one. He replied that, as they had to sing in the morning, he’d been quite sensible and went to bed not long after I had. One of the things I love about these events is the way that they re-define concepts such as ‘sensible bed-time’.

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