Musicking with the White Rosettes


This may prove to be a tricky post to write. Not for any emotional complications – it tells of an entirely cheerful and purposeful occasion – nor for conceptual conundrums – we all knew what we were doing and we did it well. The problem is the entirely practical one of how do I write an account of a coaching session that was pretty much entirely about specific musical detail without actually talking about the music?

I run into this problem to an extent every time I go to coach an ensemble on a new arrangement that they will want to reveal at some point in the future, but there’s usually some generalisable technical points to distract you with while I’m avoiding naming the song. Is vagueblogging a thing?

And of course it would be unthinkable to go and work with the UK’s most consistently successful barbershop chorus and not blog about it. That would be silly.

Myelinating with Mo

The recent LABBS Harmony College brought lots of interesting resonances with the blog post I had scheduled to come out the day after I got home from it. This is not entirely a coincidence of course – at the time I was writing about practice processes and shunting between local and global, I was also refining my notes for a session on rehearsal techniques that focused on Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, and its accounts of how we acquire skills.

But our guest educator Mo Field also gave us a lot to enrich that understanding. Her coaching under glass session with Soundhouse and Avalon quartets on Saturday evening was a masterclass in myelination. She took very little time before she started to delve deep, paring down to two singers each on a single note and spending a long time there before building up to four singers and three or notes at a go. Then when she pulled the camera back to take in wider stretches of music, the singers were able to continue accessing the new paths they had gone down as they had spent long enough there to get them at least partly established.

BABS Convention 2019

Mixed chorus champions: A Kind of MagicMixed chorus champions: A Kind of Magic

The last weekend in May is the traditional spot in the calendar for the British Association of Barbershop Singers to hold their national Convention. This year we were back in Bournemouth, the town in which I started my barbershop journey 23 years ago.

The headline change was that this is the first year that the mixed chorus contest has been fully under the BABS umbrella. Indeed, from the way the contest was introduced you’d think that BABS had invented the genre: they claimed that of the 10 entrants, half were newly formed to enter, and half were collaborations between existing clubs. (It reminded me of the way that when the Barbershop Harmony Society announced their new inclusive strategic vision they made it sound like they’d just invented women.)

On Musical Decluttering

KondoWhen Marie Kondo’s book first came out a few years back, enough of my friends were reading and discussing it that I got a decent feel for her method without having to try to find room on my crowded bookshelves for my own copy. Actually I imagine this would be a self-correcting problem in this context, but still, I have the benefit of some friends who give very detailed synopses of things they are interested in, so they saved me the trouble.

Now that she has a TV programme, my social media newsfeed is once more full of her ideas, though now mostly parodied as memes about which key signatures do or don’t spark joy. There’s a comment in there somewhere on the difference between books and television, and the modes of discourse they promote.

But through the frivolity, I have been musing on ways we need to declutter our musical lives. The first way is the more obvious: how do we decide which repertoire to stop rehearsing and performing?

Eclectic Quartet Coaching

I'm using their pic because it's better than the one I tookI'm using their pic because it's better than the one I tookI spent Saturday afternoon working with The Eclectic Quartet, who are preparing for their first BABS Quartet semi-final together, having qualified for Convention at Prelims back in November. They bring a good deal of flexibility and musicianship to their singing, with a readiness to drop into a song at any point, which made our work pleasantly efficient.

We gave most of our attention to developing the musical shape of their two newest songs, paying attention to both local details and building the overall arc. One of the challenges of a style that uses only four voices in a predominantly homophonic texture is that the resources for developing musical architecture and contrast are inherently more limited than, say, an orchestra, or even a piano. But within that sound world, even with its restrictions of range, timbre and texture, you can achieve a satisfying range of expression if you have a canny arranger and are alert to the signals they give you. The arrangers of both their charts can be very canny in this way, so we had plenty to work with.

Expressive Modes and Musical Shape

exprmodesWhen coaching a cappella groups, I’ll often point out a basic distinction build into popular a cappella styles that encodes information about how the music is communicating. When only one part is singing the words, with the others accompanying, the intent is usually narrative, telling a story. When all parts are singing the same words (and this usually implies at the same time – homorhythmic or nearly so), the intent is usually declarative, making a statement.

Of course, there are intermediate states - accompanied duet, or trio plus neutral bass-line for instance – but they slot in quite happily on this continuum between the more discursive and the more emphatic.

On the Prosody of Twiddles

Okay, so this one is pretty niche, and delves into some nitty-gritty. But it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about just recently, so I’m going to share anyway. If you can’t be doing with the detail, you can always go back and have a bit of a laugh at the comments on my post on mansplaining instead.


If you play the piano, you will know that of the three following motifs, (a) and (b) are easier to play than (c). There’s a bit of a knack to rapid repeated notes, but once you’ve got it, you’re sorted, whilst adjacent notes are always relatively straightforward because you can use adjacent fingers and don’t need to change your hand or arm position. Mixing the two, though, requires you to switch between the two techniques mid-twiddle, incurring a disproportionately high cognitive overhead for the duration of the material.

On the Liberalising of the Barbershop Style

One of the things that has happened in the five years since I stopped being a barbershop Music judge is that there has been a deliberate policy to frame both the category description and the way it is used in practice in ways that will encourage more new music. And you’d have to say it has been largely successful. We are hearing a much wider variety of songs in contest than we used to.

In part this has been about loosening rules so they express what is best practice rather than a ‘do-this-or-else’ approach. So, for example, the chord vocabulary is now presented in a hierarchy of ringability, rather than with the distinctions between chords that are allowed, those allowed under certain circumstances, and those not allowed. All chords are allowed, but if you want to score well, keep using lots of major triads and barbershop (dominant-type) 7ths as they are the most barbershoppy.

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