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Tag-Singing, Inhabitance, Ratio, and Flow

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With thanks to Manoj for the pic: also do check out his tagsWith thanks to Manoj for the pic: also do check out his tags

The two most talked-about chapters of my barbershop book were those on gender and those on tag-singing. Having given a lot of attention to the former theme at Harmony University, I have some thoughts about the latter to share. In particular, how the activity of tag-singing, in its natural habitat, embodies many of the qualities that we were discussing in my classes on Techniques for Effective Rehearsing.

As anyone who has acquired this addiction knows, tag-singing is the secret pleasure of barbershop. It’s not very secret; we don’t purposely hide it away (though small groups of us may go and huddle in a stairwell to create our own private sonic space to enjoy it in). But you wouldn’t know about it by going to public-facing events – it’s what goes on after hours, when the formal activities have finished and people just want to hang out with each other.

For those unfamiliar with the practice: ‘tag’ is the barbershop term for coda – the little bit of music with which you finish an arrangement, like casting-off in knitting, to stop it unravelling. These snippets get detached from songs for informal social singing in small groups, as they can be taught in a few minutes and thus allow people to sing together without any prior preparation. People also write tags specifically for this purpose, with no song attached to them.

If you want to see who is going to become tomorrow’s musical leaders, look who is still singing tags as an afterglow thins out. Staying on late for more singing is not just a sign of a proper obsessive, it is also the means to build your essential barbershop skills most efficiently.

People often bring tags into rehearsals in the hope that they will deliver this same high-octane musicianship boost to the group as a whole, but my observation is that they rarely do. They are still fun things to sing, and learning happens, but not with the intensity you find in tag-singing outside formal events.

There are a number of qualities of informal tag-singing that are highly desirable for the rehearsal experience, though, and it is these, rather than necessarily the tags themselves, that we really want to achieve on rehearsal night.

  • Inhabitance David McNeill appropriates Merleau-Ponty’s concept of ‘inhabiting the same house of being’ to described the cooperative nature of small-group conversation, in which speakers and listeners share gestures to create meaning together. He would love a tag session. The singers create tight F-formations in which their shared musicotopographic gestures communicate mutual understanding of micro-tuning, vowel shape, balance, and pacing. It is an intensely collaborative experience, in which all are fully committed to creating a whole that none could achieve alone.
  • Ratio This is Doug Lemov’s measure of on-task-ness – how many people are doing how much work in this room? In tag-singing, ratio routinely nears 100% - singers listen intently as other parts are taught, and once they have been taught their own they work hard to keep it alive in their head until the whole is ready to be put together. The act of singing then gets everyone working together to make the individual parts gel properly. Harmonising this way is perpetually active, you don’t get the chance to swing the lead.
  • Flow Tag-singing ticks all the boxes to get you ‘into the zone’. It is inherently rewarding, it is clear when you’ve got it right, the quality of the sound gives you real-time feedback on how you’re doing, and you have a sense of personal control over what you’re doing. And it balances challenge to capacities beautifully. If the person teaching the tag looks into your eyes and sees you’ve got it, they move on immediately, if they see and hear you struggling, they stay with you to help. Indeed, if you’re really struggling, other people in the group will leave their parts to support you until you’ve got it, then abandon you to go back to their own part as soon as you no longer need them. The group needs every member to succeed to make the chords ring, so no member is left to flounder.

The qualities of Inhabitance and Ratio, that is, directly facilitate the experience of Flow, adjusting the challenge level to the maximum the group is capable of at any moment, responsively in real time.

And this analysis leads me to suspect that the key thing that inhibits tags in the chorus rehearsal from getting to the same level of Flow is that a chorus is too big for everyone to participate in the same F-formation. The person out front can interact with every singer on the risers, but they have very limited scope to interact with each other. Even if you get off the risers and stand in a circle, you don’t really get the opportunity to help a person across the room click their note into the sweet spot with a quirk of your eyebrow.

You do get to experience Inhabitance in chorus – that is key to the conductor-choir bond – but the Ratio will tend to be lower as the quicker learners don’t get to increase their own challenge levels by helping the slower learners as they do in a more intimate grouping. There is still plenty of opportunity for Flow in chorus rehearsals – musicking remains excellent for this, and I’m hoping this analysis helps us all achieve it even more than we do already – but don’t be surprised if your late-night tags still take you more immediately into the zone.

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