LABBS Convention 2018

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The White Rosettes during their monumental mic-cooling setThe White Rosettes during their monumental mic-cooling set

The last weekend in October is the traditional moment for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers to hold their annual Convention. This year we were back in Harrogate, at the venue in which I experienced my very first one, 21 years ago. The Cheshire Chord Company won the chorus competition on that occasion too.

After the extravangzas of the last two years (the 40th anniversary Convention in 2016, and the European Convention last year), this years’ was always going to feel smaller. But the experience of that was a positive change: it was more intimate, easier to spend quality time with friends, less of a scrummage trying to get round the building.

And whilst a good many established LABBS choruses had chosen 2018 as a year to focus on other projects (competing at the conventions in Spain or Ireland, for instance, or the Edinburgh Fringe), we also had the excitement of seeing some new faces in the chorus contest. Cleeve Harmony and One Acchord both took the step into competing in the national arena for the first time this year, and Zero Degrees Chorus (mic-warming) and Spinnaker (bronze medallists) have recently joined LABBS from Sweet Adelines Region 31.

As an aside, it is worth noting how much healthier the relationship between LABBS and Sweet Adelines is than 20 years ago. Back than it was very tribal: you picked one or the other (or, more likely, you just happened to find yourself in one depending on the affiliation of your local chorus), and you would hardly know the other even existed. Now, you still tend to end up in one or the other depending on circumstance, but you find yourself meeting and making friends with members of the other at any and all kinds of barbershop events.

I can see why, once upon a time, the two organisations could have been seen as a threat to each other, but it turns out in practice that both offer things that the other can’t, both have healthy cultures in their own right, and both are enriched by the hardcore barbershop addicts who like to participate in both.

Another reason a smaller convention didn’t feel anticlimactic was because, whilst the chorus contest was rather shorter than usual, people had not stopped innovating. The new Performance Category continues to encourage people to explore newly theatrical ways of presenting their sets, but possibly what struck me more, in the chorus contest particularly, was the variety of music.

Not just the premieres (of which we had fewer than last year, but still a good smattering)*, but the song choices in general. There were a small number of repeats, and performances of a few songs that in previous years had felt very over-done, but in general the impression was a long way from the parade of same-old, same-old one used to hear in the past. It makes for a much more interesting audience experience.

The other thing I noticed this year was how often we saw a director stop directing, and sing as part of the chorus. The barbershop performance tradition has always included some of this in its choreographic plans, but we saw it for much longer stretches of musical time this year, and in ballads as well as up-tempo song-and-dance numbers.

The most thorough-going of this was Signature, who have been operating without a director for some time now and are by now quite experienced at performing effectively as a large chamber group. Other choruses used their performance package concepts to cast the director as a character in the narrative. Cheshire Chord Company’s ringmaster role gave their director scope to operate as a conductor some of the time or to move into the tableau at other moments. Fascinating Rhythm, meanwhile, timed some of their musical events to the inter-personal drama involving their director, but also had to carry a lot of the musical narrative independently.

But it wasn’t just the needs of theatre that prompted directors to get out of the way and join the chorus as a singer. Crystal Chords’ ballad used the traditional ‘sing a song from the heart and let the audience imagine the scenes in their heads’ approach, and so didn’t have to manage the suspension of disbelief around a conductor, but still chose to have their director sing for significant portions of it.

What I find interesting, as a trainer of conductors, is the effect on the chorus sound. The first thing to note is how well together people can sing without a director. Indeed, it may be that the removal of the director makes everyone work so much harder at ensemble that some of the best synchronised consonants we heard were undirected.

The second thing I find intriguing is what happens to the sound when the director joins the chorus line. You only get a direct comparison when you hear both conditions (conducted and not conducted) within the same song, as different musical contexts bring different sounds to the voices. But sometimes it degrades, sometimes it improves, sometimes it doesn’t change. I’d say that the third is really what you’re aiming for.

If the sound is better with the director conducting than without, that tells you that it is the director’s ear that is holding it all together, and that you can usefully work on your chorus’s listening skills so that they are taking the same kind and level of responsibility for clarity and balance as they are for synchronisation. If the sound is better without the director conducting, that tells you that something in the director’s technique is getting in the way of the voices when they do direct, so that’s something you can usefully work on to aid all those occasions when people still need a visual cue to coordinate them.

If your sound doesn’t change, then you know that that is genuinely how well your chorus sing, without distraction or distortion. You are then free to choose when and how much to direct, depending on the needs of the music and the performance.

*Shout-out to Fascinating Rhythm who this year clocked up their fourth consecutive year of two contest premieres. And we’re already working on the fifth for 2019.

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