The Barbershop Style and Opinions

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One of the things a barbershop judge in the Music Category does is to adjudicate the extent to which the music competitors sing in contest actually is barbershop music. This is something I’ve been doing for years without holding particularly strong opinions about it. It’s part of the job, so I do it. But as a scholar I have analysed the way the definition of the style has developed over the last 70 years of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s evolution, which has left me with a strong sense of relativism about it all.

But by the nature of things, I meet quite a lot of people who do hold strong opinions, and they often like to harangue me about it. (And I often feel a bit sorry for them, as I tend neither to agree vehemently nor argue back, which must be most unrewarding.) They tend either to think that the style definition is far far too restrictive and that if the genre is to survive it must be liberalised at once, or that the style has been liberalised so far that it the whole genre is at risk of being lost.

If I have an opinion about this at all, it tends to be that notwithstanding the Music Judge’s mandate to ‘preserve the style’, most of the things that actually determine barbershop’s survival actually occur elsewhere. Membership structures for the organisations, what clothes people wear (Gage Averill writes in his history of American barbershop about the ‘fear of polyester trousers’), things like that. A few minor seventh chords here and there make relatively little difference in the scheme of things.

But I recently found myself developing a more meaningful relationship with the whole question. I had been asked for advice by a potential competitor who was grappling with a dilemma over repertoire. Their preparation for contest had been interrupted by illness, so the music they had intended to perform wasn’t going to be ready in time. They had some alternative possibilities, but they didn’t entirely fit the definition for contest-grade barbershop. So their dilemma was whether they would be better off performing better-rehearsed but less suitable music, or more under-rehearsed suitable music. Not the first people to face this decision, I’m sure, nor the last!

Now, this is not kind the situation where you can tell someone what to do (even if they want you to); but you can quantify in general terms the extent to which the music for Plan B conforms to or conflicts with the style description, and therefore the degree to which it would cause a score to be lowered for style infractions.

And in looking at this example, I was suddenly struck by the way our guidelines on score reductions articulate the threshold between minor and major score reductions in terms of whether the audience feels uncomfortable. In this case, the relative shortage of barbershop (dominant/secondary dominant-type) sevenths might leave a barbershop audience feeling a little unsatisfied, but the overall thrust of the music wouldn’t worry them. This placed the music in the region of something I wouldn’t particularly recommend from a standing start, but singing it wouldn’t be tantamount to throwing everything to the lions.

We’ve been using these guidelines on reductions for some time now, but it has never struck me quite so clearly how they frame the responsibility of the Music Judge not in terms of some abstract principle of Style Preservation, but in the very concrete terms of the constituents we serve. Yes, it’s something of a circular argument, but it does by the same token have its in-built checks and balances (given the variety of opinions within that community), and it keeps the focus on who is doing what for whom.

And this is something I can care about. The Barbershop Style as a musicological construct is interesting, but essentially arbitrary; it serves a useful function, but is not something I find commands inherent emotional investment. But how real people feel listening to music – that’s something that matters to me.

Because barbershop contest performances are basically for other barbershoppers. Listening to each other in contest is how participants in a musical community bond with each other and learn from each other. The job of the judges is to arrive at a result that, overall, affirms their perceptions.

And, you know, all those people who get their kicks from ‘pushing the boundaries’ are serving a useful function in this community. They get people talking about and reflecting on the current state of the style. Unless you have some pieces that the audience feels go too far, you never really know where the edges are. But equally, there is an obligation for the judges to respond to that that excess in their scores, both out of fairness to those who have gone out of their way to adhere to the current definition and to comfort the listeners who have been outraged by its infringement.

So when liberals harangue the Music Category for being too conservative, I also keep an ear out for conservatives complaining we’re being too liberal. So long as the indignation on both sides balances, we’re probably doing okay.

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