Happy Half-century to BABS!

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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!)

Both chorus contests – male voice and mixed – were also well-populated, with a lot of groups who might not come every year making the effort to be there to mark the anniversary. The number of competitors can be one of the indicators of the organisation’s health, and whilst the special occasion means we can’t necessarily compare directly with the previous two years, the increase in the number of competitors gave cause for optimism.

It was also cheering to see that the choruses seemed on the whole a good deal less fragile than they had when we first emerged from the pandemic. Many had considerably more singers on stage than in 2022 or 2023, and those singers sounded in better vocal health. And indeed emotional health; it is interesting how you can intuit how people are in themselves from the same kinds of audible features that tell you about the state of the vocal instrument.

A fun cameo in the anniversary celebrations was an act on the open mic night on the Sunday night that had been widely trailed on social media in the run-up to the event. This was a reunion of the National Youth Barbershop Chorus from around 2005. Whilst there is inevitably a degree of survivorship bias involved here – those who drifted away from barbershop in the interim were by definition not there – it was striking how much that cohort of singers have gone on to shape the organisation. There were chorus directors, board members (including a past BABS chair), and a far higher proportion of quartetters than you find in most choruses.

It can be something a cliché of youth programmes (as well as sometimes being a bit cringey) to go on about how their participants represent the future, but looking at that collection of people, you could really see what a power of good that ensemble did for the organisation’s longer-term health. And also for the quality of life of those involved: it was a collection not just of musical and organisational leaders, but also of enduring friendship groups.

The other thing that struck me as a positive indicator for the future-proofing of British barbershop was the number of infants and toddlers around the venue – several of them with parents in the 2005 NBYC indeed. Of course not all of them will end up wanting to share their parents’ hobby, but you couldn’t help feeling that we were not only looking back at the youth of a previous generation but also forward to the youth of the next.

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