On Stage-worthiness

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Back in April, when Sandi Wright introduced the Barbershop Harmony Society’s new judging category of Performance to delegates at LABBS Harmony College, she used three key concepts to explain its central values:

  • Risk - vulnerability, courage
  • Skill - absence of distraction
  • Stage-worthy - content that is significant and relateable

Interestingly, whilst there is a good deal of material online explaining the change from the old Presentation category, as of the date of writing, the only documentation of the new category itself that I can locate is a draft dated September 2015. Which only contains mention of the second of these, skill. So my plan to write about how interesting and exciting the adoption of the concept of ‘Stage-worthy’ into the category is rather undermined.

But, still, it is clearly part of the discourse within the category, or Sandi wouldn’t have been discussing it. And I can thus still talk about the useful contribution the concept makes (either actually or potentially, depending on whether it has made it into the final version of the category description.)

What the term ‘stage-worthy’ does is bring song choice firmly into the remit of the Performance Category. They’ve always been interested in the material sung, because it is central to the impact a performance has, but this gives the means to discuss it in terms proper to the category’s remit.

Hitherto, evaluating song choice has mostly been seen as the preserve of the Music Category. And there is a lot of useful guidance in MUS about not just style (what is good barbershop?), but also craft (what is a well-written, and well-arranged song?). But it hasn’t had the wherewithal to articulate that distinction when a song is good barbershop, competently constructed, but a bit ordinary in its expressive ambition.

When I was still judging, and therefore often giving advice on contest-suitability of material, I’d find myself telling people that there was nothing wrong with a particular choice, but that I wondered if had enough stuff in it to make it the focus of their most carefully-prepared-for performance of the year. We were making these distinctions about artistic value in repertoire choices, as intelligent human beings with hearts and minds, but the category didn’t really supply the language to communicate it. Indeed, towards the end of my time as a judge, I was increasingly giving repertoire advice through the filter of what Singing and Presentation judges might think about it.

So, ‘stage-worthy’ is a really useful idea, and I have been thinking a good deal about what it entails. How can you identify significance in a song? Aspects I have been reflecting on so far include:

  • Jeopardy. Something is at stake, at risk. The example that really got me thinking about this was ‘When I Fall in Love’ - it’s not just a declaration of love (itself a moment of emotional vulnerability), but it raises the stakes by framing love as a one-shot chance.

    There are also performative levels of jeopardy: virtuosity sees the singers taking technical risks. It is a different flavour of entertainment value, but there is something rightly gripping about people exercising extraordinary skills.

    We had an exam question for our first-year undergraduates at the first college I taught in that captures this idea well: ‘Without the possibility of failure, there can be no true performance. Discuss’. (It was actually a music history exam, but I loved the fact that we made every student sit down in a quiet room and think about this question for 45 minutes at an early stage of their higher education.)

  • Vividness. Something that catches our attention and imagination. This is related to, but not identical to memorableness (which I’ve had a go at unpacking before) - trivial songs can be memorable too. But you do tend to find that songs that pull you in have more colour in them - in their harmonic language as well as their poetic imagery. Counterfactual emotions, with their embedded stories, create vividness too
  • Heroism. I am using this term, rather than ‘relatable’, to tease out the notion of compelling empathy. The act of witnessing and understanding a musical performance is always one of feeling-along-with; indeed, I have theorised in the past that embarrassing performances are ones where you find yourself reluctant to empathise with what you are being invited to identify with.

    But a stage-worthy song, and a stage-worthy performance, is one where we somehow find ourselves becoming more than ourselves. Our hearts and minds are invited to operate on a more exalted level than day-to-day. Again, this may work at a narrative-emotional level and/or a level of performance skill. I can be touched by a heartfelt delivery from a novice when it is sincere and honest, but The Buzz invite me to imagine along with expertise as well as sincerity.

Two further points. First, ‘stage-worthy’ in the abstract doesn’t necessarily have to imply the raised emotional temperature that these elements entail. There is a place in the world for light songs, emotionally uncomplicated songs, simple cheerfulness. But the context of the performance makes a difference. In longer sets you need light relief so as not to exhaust your audience; in informal settings, emotional depth may be misplaced.

But for contest purposes, where all performers prepare carefully and all the audience is strongly invested in the occasion, music that everyone can rise to is important. If you only get to perform two songs, you need to pick them carefully.

Second, this idea helps us see why the advice to ‘choose something simple and sing it well’, while sensible on the surface doesn’t always produce the most successful performances. Whilst it is certainly a good idea not to over-reach yourself in your repertoire choices, you do need music that will inspire you. You can only get an emotional response from the audience if you yourself care about the song.

I can relate to this. What I'd like to add as a comment is that we (as a quartet) find it harder each time to find the right songs to sing at a convention. The songs that are usually fit for contest (which has indeed always been a matter of musical suitability only), are usually not the ones we want to add to our regular songlist. Which, for us, is a must for every convention song we sing. We do not want to put that much effort in 2 songs that we only sing once.

Oh for sure - you want the music you polish for contest to work for all your other audiences too, or at least a good proportion of them

I'm sure this has been part of what the shift from PRS to Performance has been about - finding a greater common ground between barbershop and wider musical cultures. And of course, song choice is only part of that process. But I think the approach to musical content in more recent years is starting to give more room for manoeuvre on this.

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