A Cappella

More Musings on ‘Old Barbershop’

When I last reflected on the category of ‘old barbershop’ eight years ago, I finished up by wondering what sounded normal then that would sound dated 20 years on. Well, it’s only eight years on, and I found myself thinking about perceptible cultural shifts again at the BABS Convention back in May.

My musings last time were mostly about musical things like approaches to voice-leading and embellishment and performance things like styles of body language in the context of continuous performance traditions. I did mention subject matter in passing, but only mentioned the most ostentatiously outmoded lyrics in defining the category of ‘old’.

Now, by contrast, I found myself observing a clear division in song storyline and lyric between those that evoked social relations that we would wish to promote these days in an organisation that celebrates diversity, equity and inclusion, and those in which the social relations feel uncomfortably old-school.

Happy Half-century to BABS!

Anniversary quartet champions Fifth Element on their victory lapAnniversary quartet champions Fifth Element on their victory lap

The Spring bank holiday weekend saw the British Association of Barbershop Singers hold their annual Convention in Harrogate, at which they celebrated the organisation’s 50th anniversary. It was a full schedule, with long contests as well as shows and various other activities, and it would have been pretty much impossible to partake of everything on offer as well as catch-up with friends.

To mark the occasion, all quartets who wanted to compete had been invited to do so at the convention itself (rather than going through a preliminary round some months earlier to select the top tranche to compete on the big stage); this meant that Friday was completely filled with the quartet semi-finals. Fortunately, the first ever livestream broadcast of a BABS convention meant that those who were still travelling up during the day were able to keep tabs on what was happening en route. (I hope it was only the car passengers watching while actually on the move, but as everyone turned up alive, I assume this was the case!)

Listening Louder with the Sussex Harmonisers

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I spent a happy Saturday workshopping and coaching with the Sussex Harmonisers at the weekend. They have an interesting set-up: one club, with one board and music team, but two choruses, one male-voice, the other female-voice, which also currently share a director (though they haven’t always done so). The two choruses operate largely independently as ensembles, with separate rehearsal nights, but the shared infrastructure allows them to coordinate and collaborate on repertoire and performance plans.

Saturday was their first shared education event, and they devised a very effective model for it. In the morning, I worked with both choruses together in a workshop themed ‘The Listening Chorus’. Then after lunch, they took it in turns to have 45-minute sessions of coaching on songs from their respective repertoires, with the other chorus listening.

Concentrating the Energy in Berlin

Women in Black Mar24

Sometimes you find a single overarching theme for a coaching visit encompasses a range of areas to work on that initially seem quite disparate. Having the chance to listen to the group in advance increases the chance of spotting this in time to set the agenda from the outset. Such was my experience with Women in Black in Berlin last weekend.

Their recordings from the previous week’s rehearsal revealed a chorus with a clear sense of expressive intent, bringing a lot of energy to their performance. (I learned afterwards that their previous coach, Lisa Rowbathan, had done a lot of work with them on story-telling; that this came over in the recordings as a conspicuous strength is a testimony to her effectiveness.) I arrived with the aspiration to help them harness that energy in a more focused fashion to help them realise that intent more efficiently, both so that they didn’t have to work so hard, and so that their intentions would be communicated with greater clarity.

Choral Breathing and the Quest for Perpetual Legato

I’m on record for feeling somewhat critical of the practice of choral breathing – that is, of singers in a choir managing their breathing points by breathing whenever they feel like, so long as it’s at a different time from their neighbours, and they do it in the middle of a vowel rather than shortening a syllable.

I have heard people promoting the idea in terms of vocal freedom, and actually this argument is a compelling one its favour. People are most likely to tense up and get anxious while singing when running out of breath, so if you remove that as something to worry about, they’ll sing with both greater emotional and physical freedom. I do like this rationale, though I am still concerned about the dissociation of technique from musical narrative, and the way that it actively prevents choral singing being a good training ground for solo singing and single-voice-per-part ensembles.

Practical Aesthetics: Questions to emerge

I’m coming back to the ideas Theo Hicks shared in his final plenary at the BABS/LABBS Directors Weekend back in January, as my first post on the subject produced some great discussion, but in a variety of different places. So I thought it worth bringing some of the points together, as people may not have seen all of each other’s interesting responses.

Michael Callahan said:

I’d be interested on an audience’s reception that is ignorant of musical aesthetics (which most audiences are).

If I understood Theo’s ideas correctly, the audience doesn’t need to be aware of any of the process behind the performance preparation, they just need to bring along their usual desire to listen to music. In much the way that listeners don’t need to know what the names of different chords are in order to feel their expressive flavour.

Soapbox: Inclusiveness, and how not to do it

soapbox I wrote this post last September, in the midst of an eventful period in the British barbershop community, but a wise friend talked me down from posting it at the time. She may continue to have her doubts about the wisdom of posting it, indeed, which I can understand, but I’m choosing to do so anyway for two reasons.

First, because whilst the immediate crisis has passed, the issues it deals with have not gone away and there are some points here I’ve not seen in the public debates (though they have circulated to a degree in private ones I think).

Second, as a record of the experience of the events at the point they happened. Looking back at the post, the tone carries considerably more heat than I usually bring to this blog, and I did consider rewriting it before posting to de-escalate the language. But the strength of the reaction is testament to the impact of the events, and whilst the grown-up thing is often to minimise one’s public displays of emotional response in order to maintain diplomatic relations, there is a risk thereby of pretending the damage didn’t happen. So, I’m saying, calmly, this is how uncalm it felt 6 months ago.

A Champion Day

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I spent Saturday with my friends at Bristol A Cappella, working with them on music they will be performing as outgoing Mixed Chorus Champions at BABS Convention in May. What with their mic-warming duties, swan-song set and show spot, there’s a good deal more music to prepare for the event than you ever have to bring as a competitor, so we had a busy time. Fortunately, the groups who are faced with this packed schedule are the ones who have demonstrated skills that will win a contest so are up for the extra challenge.

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