Overwhelmed to be Back at BABS Convention

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Pic courtesy of BABS facebook feedPic courtesy of BABS facebook feedThis last weekend saw the first in-person barbershop Convention in the UK since before Covid. If the British Association of Barbershop Singers' Convention had fallen in its more usual spot in the calendar a month later, that honour would have fallen to Sweet Adelines Region 31, but that’s just how things worked out with public holidays this year.

Sing2022 was a smaller event than we have been used to in recent years. Both in terms of its duration – starting a bit later on the Friday, ending on the Sunday night rather than going into the Monday – and in terms of number of delegates. There were fewer competing choruses than usual, and many if not most of the choruses were visibly depleted in number since before the pandemic. This is a common experience amongst choirs across the country, not just barbershop, though people are starting to report a new uptick in interest as people feel more confident to go out do things again and are looking for new pastimes.

Personally, I was quite grateful for a smaller event to ease us back in. We have all become more nervous of crowds in the past two years, and being able to move round the venue with a little more elbow room than we sometimes get was a relief. There were still far more people there than you could adequately catch up with in the time available. We should do these events more often to keep up with everyone!

A common experience after any multi-day barbershop event is the sense of being ‘barbershopped out’ – i.e. much as you love it all, you find you’ve had enough now thank you and can we listen to something else or just be quiet on the way home please? The experience of lockdown and re-emergence has given me new insights into that condition: it is a genre-specific case study that illustrates some interesting things about how our brains work.

We’ve all talked quite a lot in recent months about how ‘peopling’ has become challenging. Having drastically reduced our contacts to inhibit the spread of virus, we are out of practice in social situations. Stuart Neilson talks from an autistic spectrum perspective, of having a limit to the number of ‘social calories’ he can consume before he needs to go and be alone to digest them. Friends are like cakes, that is: however much you love them, once you’ve had enough, any more will make you sick.

I’d appreciated this metaphor before Covid, but the cessation of social life for extended periods has exacerbated this response - to pursue the metaphor, lockdown has acted like a social gastric band.

Likewise, I’d felt like this about music too. When I’ve been working in an intensively musical mode (full days coaching, arranging), I’ll sometimes find that we put on a CD in the evening, and I can’t listen to it - the music just bounces off me. When we started going to live music events again some months ago, I found that the listening experience was significantly heightened by the relative novelty value, but that I’d sometimes be full before we got the end. In December I was on-the-edge-of-my-seat thrilled by the CBSO until part-way through the New World Symphony, when my brain closed down and my body became increasingly twitchy with the need to take me somewhere quiet to process it all.

The BABS Convention weekend, for me, shared these qualities of heightened experience and limited stamina. I found myself getting barbershopped out on significantly smaller helpings of music than I would have expected, and quickly realised I was going to need to pace myself. I also found it hard to synthesise the listening experiences into wider judgements – which is why I’m not yet writing much about my musical impressions of the weekend. I haven’t yet got much beyond, ‘Ooh! Singing! Listen to that!’ as an articulated response. Turns out my analytical capacities are also out of practice, who would have thought, eh?

So it turns out that what I thought was going to be an opportunity to learn about the state of the barbershop nation as it recovers from the pandemic years has instead taught me something about my own recovery process. I have some further thoughts about how this relates to cognitive function but this post is quite long enough so I’ll separate those out into a subsequent post.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of my European barbershop friends in Helsingborg for my second Convention in as many weeks. I’m hoping my stamina will have improved a little for this longer event, but in any case there will be a little more time in which to consume as many social and musical calories as I can handle.

This is a good moment to appreciate afresh how much work is done by dedicated volunteers to make these events happen. Wherever you are in the barbershop world, as you get the chance to return to your conventions, remember to give your events teams lots of love.

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