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A Weekend with the LABBS Family

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I have spent every last weekend in October since 1997 at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention. In the year when everything was cancelled, through the vision and dedication of the LABBS Social Media team, that generalisation remains true. We were treated to the entire three-day event online: the opportunity for all member quartets and choruses to share what they had been working on, all-star shows, communal singing, the presentation of awards, the lot. We even had times when Fringe education events clashed with the main stream, only this time you only had to choose which to watch live and which on catch-up, not which to miss.

The LABBS Big Weekend, that is, lived up to its name. Indeed, I can see it is going to take more than the usual one post-event blog article to reflect on it. And that’s not just because I don’t get out much these days so want to wring the most out of every experience I do get to have – there is genuinely a lot to reflect on. I’ve got some notes about some of the things that watching all the member videos on the quartet and chorus days made me realise about the usual events, which I’ll explore in future posts. For today, I feel the need to think about the emotional impact of the event as a whole, plus a couple of specific headline moments.

A lot of the commentary as the weekend developed was that a lot of people found themselves surprised to feel as emotionally engaged with it as they did, that it recreated the sense of connection the regular event gives us astonishingly well. I wasn’t entirely surprised by this – I had a hunch I would be feeling weepily loved-up quite a lot – but I was surprised by how much I wanted to immerse myself in it. I had imagined I’d pick and choose a bit, cherry-picking particular performances to watch, not least because I took several hours out of the middle of Saturday to travel over to Telford for what turns out to have been our last live chorus session for the time being.

But when I got back from Telford, I went back to where I’d left off, and spent the rest of the afternoon on catch-up. I’ve still not seen all the educational sessions, but by the end of Sunday I had caught up on all the performances and shows. I really thought I’d have wanted more break from screen time, but it turned out that every time I came up for air, I didn’t want to be in my own living room with a dishwasher to empty and laundry to put away, I wanted to be imaginatively back with my chums.

The combination of seeing people’s faces (and hearing their voices!), some addressing us live, many on prepared videos, some in interactive sessions, with real-time text-based chat in various social media channels throughout all of them, gave a sense of shared experience and the joint re-assertion of shared values. I have observed when reflecting on previous LABBS Conventions at how good the organisation is at creating a sense of belonging, and this showed through not only the way the event was set up, but also in so much of the member-contributed content. The sense of pulling together to celebrate and share was very real.

On reflection, I don’t know to what extent it would have been as powerful for someone who had not experienced a live Convention. One of the things that created such a strong sense of resonance was the many anchor points by which the online programme was connected to the traditional shape of the live event, both in structure and reference. But my hunch is that, even for people new to LABBS whose heartstrings wouldn’t be so directly tugged by it all, the narrative would still be clear and coherent: love, laughter, song, mutual support.

The emotional experience of the weekend was also inevitably shaped by learning during the event that England was heading back into national lockdown. Leaked to the press on Friday night, the unconfirmed probability of it hung over us all day Saturday, and added an extra layer of poignancy to watching the chorus videos, many of which had been filmed back in the summer, when the weather was bright and people could at least go and spend time in each other’s gardens.

The title of my post is a reference to the song ‘We Are Family’, that I arranged for the Venus Effect, the recipients of the inaugural Jenny Mills Award at last year’s convention. They should have been singing it to us in Bournemouth, but instead shared it through the joyful video played towards the end of the clip linked at the top of this post. The process of choosing the song was not straightforward, but the eventual choice carries a message we needed more than ever this year.

Indeed, during Sunday, LABBS announced that they are adopting it as our theme tune until we can meet together in person again, however long that may be. Oh, another weepy moment, here at the keyboard this time, excuse me.

Okay: so, here’s the thing you need to know, and need to do. The bit in the video where the words ‘Get up everybody and sing’ appear on screen is an instruction. The claps are the signal that the audience needs to join in the tune. The back end of the arrangement is built around audience participation, so start singing the tune there and keep repeating to the end of the song. There’s actually one chorus in which nobody in the quartet has the tune, so it’s up to you to keep it going there at that point. Make sure you do this every time you hear the song, so that when we do finally get back together again, you are in practice and ready to make its first live performance the complete embodiment of the song’s spirit.

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