Jubilation with LABBS

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Thanks to LABBS social media team for the pic!Thanks to LABBS social media team for the pic!

Last weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop singers convene in Bournemouth for their first full in-person Convention since 2019. The theme for the event was Jubilation, and there was a lot of joy in evidence, both in the performances and in the social interactions around the venue. It was great to be back.

One of the features of the barbershop contest traditions in normal times is that the winner of the chorus contest each year does not compete in the year immediately following. This means they can spend their championship year focusing on performing as champions, and preparing something special to perform at the convention at the end of the year rather than leaping straight back into preparing for their next contest.

These haven’t been normal times, so whilst the 2019 gold medallists performed some of the duties of immediate past champs at this year’s event (such as leading the mass sing on Sunday morning), they were straight back in to competing, as were both of the other choruses who have in recent times achieved gold medals. To have Amersham A Cappella, Cheshire Chord Co and the White Rosettes competing together in a thrillingly tight triple-headed race really made it feel we were back with a bang!

But it wasn’t just those with a track record as big-hitters who impressed this weekend. The impression from the listening experience was that the overall standard was higher than hitherto, and the scores bore out that impression.

In particular, it felt like our association’s singers are back to vocal health. This time last year, people were still in recovery mode: stamina, tone, range, support were still suffering from the impact of over a year’s interruption to regular rehearsal routines. This weekend, it no longer felt like we had to worry about people, but could relax and relish the gift of their performances.

I’m making these generalisations mostly by comparing the live performances from this weekend with the recorded performances shared as part of the organisations’s hybrid convention last year, which combined online material with regional in-person events round the country. But I did hear one LABBS chorus, Steel City Voices, perform on the show at BABS QuartetCon last November, and the distance they have travelled in the last year illustrates the recovery process beautifully.

A year ago you could hear that they were on the case, with a clear sense of what they were aiming for, but they weren’t there yet. The sound had the cleanliness of the well-rehearsed, but the tone was not yet fully centred. This year they stormed into their first competition at joint 5th place with a sound that was assured and flexible, and which they could rely on to deliver the fruits of their considerable musical imagination. They were a great showcase for the principle that the point of secure technique is to allow the artistry to happen.

In some ways it felt like the association had come back in better vocal shape than before the pandemic, and it’s interesting to reflect on this impression. It may of course be in part an artifact of survivorship bias – it was a slightly smaller chorus contest than in some years so it probably reflects a degree of self-selection, with those not yet back to full vocal health opting out. Having said that, we had several groups sing for evaluation (i.e. to be judged but not included in the published rankings) and one sing for joy (i.e. to perform but receive no score or feedback), so whilst their performances aren’t included in the data from the scoresheets, they are included in my personal impressions.

I wonder also if the fact that we were in such difficult circumstances a year ago has focused everybody much more on establishing healthy technical habits, and in the process we’ve built back better. The interruption to practice routines that eroded skills would also have distanced people from less helpful habits, since both good and bad habits are stored by the same kinds of mechanisms. So the extra work of recovery was at least facilitated by old habits having less of a hold on automatic responses.

And there was also the spirit of the occasion. Just to be there felt like such a blessing - people sang with such heart, and may well have been putting themselves under less pressure as a result. The voice is always at its best when you feel like you’re in your happy place.

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