Have Quartet, Need Music...

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Reasonably often, I get emails from people who have just started a new barbershop quartet (or, less frequently, chorus), asking for advice on finding music to sing. So I'm writing this so I can do a thorough reply which I can send out repeatedly, rather than writing a new sketchy reply to each new request.

So, the first thing to say is, if you wanted someone to say, 'Here, you should sing this, this and this,' you are asking the wrong person. I just don't store large lists of songs in my head like some people do, I have research skills instead. But I'm not going to spend hours doing song research for you, since you could do that yourself and cut out the middle man.

(It's also worth mentioning, as an aside, in the particular case of groups seeking material for barbershop contests, that any arrangement I know in enough detail to assess its suitability to a particular group I will have heard far too many times already - that's how I know it so well - so I'm not going to suggest it.)

That all sounds very negative, but it's just managing your expectations, really. It gets more useful here on in.

There are two stages to the process of acquiring repertoire, sourcing the songs, and choosing them. You can do this either way round, really. You can either decide what you'd like to sing, then see if you can find an arrangement of it, or you can see what's available and decide which of those you fancy. Most groups do a mixture of both.

Either way round, the process of choosing, is about suitability of song and arrangement to the group. I have written before about the issues you need to take into account in these decisions, and don't have a lot that needs adding here.

As to sourcing, well, we have the internet these days, and there are loads of useful resources to help. First, here's a starter-list for where to find arrangements. There's plenty more than these, but these will keep you going until you've got some experience and awareness of the possibilities and start to find more.

[By the way, a working majority of arrangements for women can be transposed without change to work for men and vice versa. There are enough exceptions that you may need to be careful, but don't ignore an arrangement just because it is for the 'wrong' sex - it may yet work out for you.]

So, that's the direct route. But there's more.

Youtube is your friend here for listening around, getting a feel of what's possible, what you like, what you want to avoid. Start off with a most generic term like 'barbershop music', listen to the first thing that takes your fancy, and then start to browse. Or, if you have a song you've thought of, search for 'barbershop song title' and start from there. It can eat a lot of your life doing this, but you learn a lot too.

You also have a great media-aggregation service available via what are known as your 'friends'. (You can take that in either the Real Life or Facebook sense; either works.) This is the best device I have ever found for coming up with song ideas that you wouldn't have thought of yourself. And if you're in an ensemble, you've already got your start-pack of co-thinkers right there.

That sounds facetious, but in fact it's how I have avoided the need to do much by way of new song searches myself for a good long time. As I have written before, as an arranger I am pretty much always arranging to order these days, often helping people through the choosing process, but after they have sourced possibilities. And with Magenta, we have quite a well-developed process for collating ideas and getting a consensus as to which are more or less well-liked, so again, my role is to make final choices rather than to source (I do contribute to the ideas collecting process, but not as prolifically as others).

Now you have all these pointers, all it takes is leg-work and decision-making. Get yourself a list of possibilities that you like, and work through it, assessing each for suitability. You don't need to pick many at once of course. Get a couple of likely-looking ones to start learning while you decide on what next.

For, while much repertoire may be destined to stay in your performing set for years, no individual piece has to. It's not like you're getting married to a chart - you can learn it, sing it for a bit, then replace it as you move on. Arguably, it's more useful to work through a fair variety of music from the early stages, rather than trying to find the perfect fit straight away. Even if you get partway through learning some songs and discover that they don't suit you as well as you had hoped, the worst that will have happened is that you will have developed as musicians and learned something about yourselves.

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