On Voicings for Mixed Barbershop Choruses, Part 2

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In my previous post, we considered why mixed barbershop presents vocal challenges that are quite distinct from the single-sex forms of the genre. (In a nutshell, the standard distribution of vocal ranges for a single-sex group is a camel, but for mixed groups is a dromedary.)

We also considered some of the impacts of this structural feature. It affects individuals singers, as quite a few in any mixed chorus are likely to end up singing out of their best range. It also affects the group as a whole, through the impact of people singing outside their best range on the sound, and/or through difficulty populating the parts in an optimum balance. That post didn’t mention the expressive impact of singing out of range, but it’s something I’ve touched upon before more than once.

In the light of these obstacles, it is probably worth reminding ourselves of some of the benefits that the mixed form offers to compensate for these difficulties. It may be stating the obvious to point out that people like doing things in mixed-sex groups, but I suspect that this is the major driver for the growth of the form. There are also musical benefits though, for example the distinctively lustrous sound you can get when you have both male and female voices combined on a single line. There are opportunities to explore a wider pitch range, and therefore also timbral palette too.

It’s also worth noting that when mixed barbershop groups work as project choirs (as many do), getting together every so often to participate in specific events, rather than regular week-in-week-out choruses, the impact on individuals is less of a problem. If your regular fix of singing is in a group where you can sing in your best range, it won’t do you too much damage, either vocally or emotionally, to sing out of range occasionally in return for the extra things that a mixed group can bring to your musical life.

Still, the musical and vocal challenges remain, and people are being creative in finding ways to transcend them. Here are some of the solutions I have encountered so far:

  1. Sing music in more than 4 parts. This is no good for barbershop contests of course, but great for show tunes, and can really exploit the wider total range of the ensemble. My 8-parter project from 2020 was throwing my weight behind this principle.
  2. Map the ranges of all singers in the chorus and commission a chart to fit them. Endeavour chorus did this recently – have a listen out for it at BABS Convention> in May. Interestingly, the result ended up with somewhat wider voicings overall than you’d get in typical barbershop arrangements. The top three parts remained reasonably tight, but the basses sometimes moved further away than you’d usually have space to. From an acoustic perspective you want the interval between bass and the next lowest note to be the widest in a chord, so ringability remains good. However, in optimising for a particular mixed group, we now have a chart that would be unlikely to work for a single-sex ensemble.
  3. Distribute lines differently within the group to suit the available ranges. Iain Hallam has taken a really imaginative approach to this with one of Bristol A Cappella’s songs. He gave the original Lead line to a small cadre of singers for whom the melody lay comfortably and convincingly within their best ranges. He then doubled the higher parts of the melody with the rest of the altos and the lower parts with the rest of the tenors, giving each part the respectively higher and lower passages of the original baritone line the rest of the time. They ended up with a clear sense of narrative/timbral continuity from the singers involved in the Lead line throughout, but with a wider range of colour on the melody as the doublings changed. And everyone ended up singing in a range that was comfortable for them.

Of course the big question turns out to be to what extent these solutions are still ‘barbershop’ by the definitions guarded so carefully throughout the mid-late 20th Century. One could imagine the Kibbers of yesteryear having a conniption at the adaptations to arrangement techniques that are evolving to customise the genre to a new ensemble form. But it’s not such a major change to the genre as inventing the barbershop chorus was in the first place and we seem to have weathered that well enough. And since the genie is out of the bottle, it strikes me as healthier to engage creatively with making the genre work for mixed voices than to insist that it has to remain exactly the same as it was when optimised for single-sex ensembles.

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