Workshopping with the Barberfellas
I spent Saturday afternoon in London doing a bespoke workshop with the Barberfellas, an a cappella ensemble who all also sing with the Pink Singers choir. As their name implies, they specialise in close-harmony music, some of which is barbershop in the purists’ sense (you don’t get much more classic than arrangements by Ed Waesche), and some more stylistically varied, including some material arranged in-house.
My remit for the afternoon fell into two main areas: first a focus on building the classic barbershop ‘ring’ in the sound, and second some work on engaging the audience, both through stagecraft and generating musical expression and variety in performance.
The work on sound started in the warm-up. In many ways the barbershop warm-up is the same as any vocal warm-up, with its need to engage body, breath, phonation, range and ears. But of course each of those elements can be approached through a genre-specific lens. So in activating the breath, we used bubbling to introduce a technique we would be using to develop continuity of sound, and in activating the voice, we used exercises that enabled a focus on consistency of resonance through changing vowels shapes. The ears probably had the most genre-specific attention, as we finished with my favourite exercise for listening to lock and ring. Once you get some audible overtones going, you know you’re ready for some repertoire.
Once we started in on repertoire, the challenge became how to generate the clear, ringing sound they had produced so effortlessly in the warm-up in the much more complex environment of rapidly changing vowels and harmonies, constantly interrupted by consonants that you find in songs. If it weren’t for all that going on at once, it would be easy! (And rather less interesting, to be sure.) So, we used unison singing for unit sound across the ensemble, bubbling for continuity of sound, singing without consonants to get the vowels all lined up with a consistent placement and duetting for depth of listening.
It was interesting to discover that as we went through this process, the delivery slowed down significantly. In some places, it was at my encouragement, pointing out that where there was a juicy chord at the end of the phrase in a ballad, the arranger would have expected you to take time for it to sound, without having to rush into the breath to keep the tempo up. But within the phrases also the pacing became broader, and the singers weren’t entirely sure how much they should be concerned about this.
To my mind, it was in part a natural and temporary function of concentrating on something new. This often means you have to let go of monitoring something else to make cognitive space for the new focus. The fact that they recognised the tempo had slowed meant that it was within their power to increase it again should they wish to. But the sense of taking extra time to listen wasn’t just a function of the learning process, there was also a growing pleasure in revelling in the stuff of the harmony. The better your barbershop ring is, the more you may be tempted into chord worship, it seems.
(My guess is they will eventually settle on a pacing that takes somewhat more time than their original choices, but is not as languid as they were getting during the workshop.)
When we were planning the workshop, the request for work on expression and variety in performance made me smile; the question was how to make sure all the sings didn’t end up sounding the same. A lot of barbershop groups struggle with that, I thought. And then I thought: no, actually if you struggle with something you are actually attempting it - a lot of barbershop groups could do with starting to struggle with it, ahem.
We approached this through the concept that barbershop used to call ‘theme’ but seems to refer less confusingly to these days as the ‘main musical strength’ of a song. This was introduced to the barbershop vocabulary as a corrective to the dizzyingly inconsistent approaches to interpretation of the 1970s and 1980s in an attempt to get people to treat songs as integrated pieces of music rather than a succession of barely-related moments.
But it actually also works well as a way to build differentiation in character between a set of songs. We could take the opening section of each,identify the primary musical element, and briefly explore how that brought the overall delivery into focus. As a technique it doesn’t affect dynamic shaping within each song, but it does allow you to make sure each piece of music has its own distinctive feel.
On reflection, it occurs to me that the success of this strategy with this group in part relied upon their relative lack of contact with barbershop as a musical sub-culture. As singers from a more general choral background they had plenty of musical experience, and given their interest in the genre, they have sought out contact with what we might call ‘organisational’ barbershop. (Indeed, I met some of them at the BABS 40th anniversary Convention last year, which is what led to this workshop.) But they are not so steeped in the idiosyncrasies of the style that it would occur to them to start a song with one kind of characterisation and then dive off-piste into a completely different feel a page later.
If you are in Cardiff on Saturday or Brighton a week later the Barberfellas are about to perform their first gigs outside of London, and both the shows they are appearing on look like great events all round. And their parent choir, the Pink Singers have a big concert coming up in the capital next month that’s worth a shout-out too.