Reflections on BABS 2017 Convention

We go to these beautiful places and spend the whole weekend inside: Just as well the music is good....We go to these beautiful places and spend the whole weekend inside: Just as well the music is good....

As usual, I spent the last weekend in May at the second largest barbershop event outside America. (Well, usually it’s the largest, but the European Convention in October is going to be a doozy this year.)

It was the first BABS Convention since the introduction of the new Performance Category into the judging system. In many ways, this change is completing shift in ethos started when the Presentation Category replaced the old Stage Presence and Interpretation categories back in the 1990s, so it represents a development rather than a step change. But the difference it is making is already perceptible in the performance choices people are making.

What I was expecting less, though, was the effect that the change has had on my experience as an audience member. I found myself less patient than previously with performances that I found mechanical or contrived. It made me realise how much I have been in the habit of forgiving certain habits or mannerisms or skill deficits as simply normal for the genre and not therefore to be worried about.

Performance with a Blank Mind

I had an email at the start of the year from a reader discussing an aspect of the experience of performing that struck me as one that many other performers would empathise with. As well as being something I wanted to reflect on as well. It came in response to my post of November 29 about Rehearsing Performance.

When rehearsing, we are often asked at the end of a run-through of a song whether we remembered to implement one or two techniques on which there is a current focus. If I have remembered I'll say yes, if I haven't consciously thought about them I'll count myself as having forgotten.

On stage, particularly in competition, all techniques are ideally implemented at once and there is no space in my brain to do this consciously. I know the answer is that by now they should be embedded and automatic, but instead, despite not feeling unduly nervous, I always come off stage concluding that my mind went entirely blank and I therefore probably did nothing I was supposed to. I feel very down on myself and don't enjoy the occasion at all. I'm not quite sure what the answer is.

‘Old Barbershop’, Part 2: A Case Study

In my previous post on ‘old barbershop’ (I am keeping the inverted commas as the term doesn’t get more self-evident with use), I talked a bit about lyrics, but mostly about specific technical features of the arrangements in core repertoire 20 years ago compared to now. The third area that came up in the conversation that sparked these posts was a framed as a general issue, but in the context of a particular song. There are threads to be untangled here.

So, the general issue was choreography, or possibly body language. There are patterns of inhabiting the body that are inherently linked to how we understand a style, indeed are part of the way we store it. This comes out both in explicitly-planned moves, but also in the general performance demeanour.

Rehearsing Performance

I had an email recently from a regular reader whom I’ve had the good fortune to become friends with in person through some of my European trips over the last 15 months. She is about to take up her first chorus director position in the new year, and had an excellent question, which she correctly diagnosed as the kind of thing it would be useful to share here.

I’ll quote her at length, because she has done a good deal of the analytical groundwork for us, so I can get straight onto the pragmatics:

One of the central takeaway messages for me from both the German and the Dutch harmony college this year was that performance is fundamentally different from rehearsal. During rehearsal you may focus on technical stuff whereas during performance you have to accept the technical level of singing that you're at and essentially forget about the technical stuff. Performance was characterized by having fun, staying in the moment, trying to connect with the audience and so on.

On Stage-worthiness

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.

On Stereotypes and Agency

A participant in the debate about race and repertoire I reflected on recently made one of those passing comments that don’t pass, but insist on staying in your head demanding to be thought about. It was about when Black singers perform music that portrays Black stereotypes: ‘but she is African American and it is her choice to make for whatever reason’.

Now, it is clear what the tension is here that people are trying to resolve. The portrayal of African Americans in blackface is quite transparently imposing a dominant culture’s representation on people who are afforded no agency in the cultural process. The reputational damage is direct and undisputed. But if African Americans themselves sing lyrics that might be thought to evoke such stereotypes, does this suggest that objecting to those stereotypes is being over-sensitive? Can we use the performances of Black singers as information about what kinds of lyrics are okay?

Miscellaneous Observations from BinG! Harmony College

Cy Wood in actionCy Wood in actionAs I reported earlier in the month, I had a stupendously enriching time with the good people of Barbershop in Germany at their Harmony College. Having done all the big-picture reflections when I first came home, I find my notebook has a pile of interesting observations, none of which is big enough to blog about in themselves, but all of which are too useful not to share.

So here is a pleasant miscellany of observations of things I found stimulating. Mostly, I see now I write them up, because they were specific instances of general principles I have been writing about over the last couple of years. Always good to see something you theorise about played out in real life.

Helping Holland Harmonise

The Buzz: They did sing an 8-parter with Crossroads, but I had run out of battery by then, so no pic...The Buzz: They did sing an 8-parter with Crossroads, but I had run out of battery by then, so no pic...

The weekend after my adventures at BinG! Harmony College, I was at serving on the faculty at another Harmony College, this time in the Netherlands. I’m going to try to avoid talking about Holland Harmony’s event primarily in terms that compare it with Germany’s and treat it as a subject in its own right as it deserves.

But just to get the comparisons out of the way, I’ll note that it wasn’t just the proximity in dates that make it tempting to consider them side by side. They both had a similar structure, with a contest on the first evening, an informal sign-up show on the Saturday night, and a final show-and-tell performance session to finish the weekend. There were also several faculty members in common between the two events.

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