Scunthorpe Festival of Choirs
Sunday took me up to Scunthorpe to participate in a Festival of Choirs at the rather wonderful Baths Hall. It was an ambitious day’s music-making, with an afternoon of workshops followed by a combined concert involving nine choirs in the evening. It became clear in conversation that it had also attracted a considerable number of singers who weren’t in the concert choirs along to the workshops (and, I would hope, as audience members). The place was thronged, and had a really lively buzz about it. They were already plotting to repeat the experience next year.
I had been asked to do a workshop on barbershop, running it twice with two different groups. It was an interesting challenge - we had just over an hour in which to both introduce the central elements of the style and get a good amount of meaningful music-making done. It would be all too easy to spend the whole time grappling with notes and words without finding space to put the resultant chords and meanings into context. Equally, it was important that the participants spent a lot more time singing than I did talking.
We started out with a simple, classic barbershop warm-up exercise to introduce the parts, their roles and usual behaviour in the texture, plus some more developed ideas, such as pyramid balance and the barbershop 7th. Once I’d seen that people were prepared to buy into the pleasurable crunch of that particular sonority, I knew we were in business and we could head on into a tag, and then a complete (if very short) song.
It was an fun cohort of people to work with. They were all experienced choral singers, a significant majority of them were confident sight-readers, and yet only a couple had any kind of first-hand experience of the genre. They could learn the notes with relative ease (not complete ease - I had picked a song with some quirky bits to stretch them), but it took exploring why the notes were like that to turn all that skill and experience into a realistic barbershop sound. And the notes that didn’t come so easily were precisely the ones that needed making sense of.
And in doing so we were able to touch on subjects such as voice-part stereotypes, the social pleasures of tag-singing, and thence chord-worship, the delight of overtones and the history of the Barbershop Harmony Society. We also identified various classic style elements - homophony, embellishments (though I used the technical term ‘twiddly’), posts and the particular emotional flavour of certain chords.
A couple of days before these workshops I had been chatting with my brother about the relative importance of skills and knowledge in education. It had got me thinking about the whole debate about how much musical meaning is embedded in the musical materials themselves, and how much in a culture’s discourses that interpret music - a theoretical question that my work as a musicologist has visited and revisited over the years.
The workshops helped me figure out why I felt these two debates to be intimately related, possibly to the extent of being two different ways of having the same discussion. In educational terms, I was teaching the skills of harmonising in the barbershop style, with all the practical activities that entails (vocal placement, fine-tuning outside equal temperament, balancing chords) by mediating these through knowledge about the style’s history and culture that would help the participants make sense of the concrete acts. At the same time, it took the practical immersion in the activity for them to grasp at an emotional level why people develop these meanings.
In terms of aesthetic theory, I was showing how inherent musical meanings are only fully accessible through their culturally-delineated meanings. But also vice versa - you could tell someone about ringing chords, but until and unless the participants rang some themselves, they wouldn’t get what all the fuss is about.
And at a meta-level: I had just spent as intensely practical afternoon as you get (teaching two roomsful of people to sing a song in 4-part harmony), and I still felt that it was inextricably linked with my life as a theorist. Whenever I work with human beings making music, at the back of my mind is the sense that I need the underlying analysis to drive the process. At the same time, the analysis arises from and is fed by a constantly refreshed fund of immersive musical experience, without which there would be nothing to analyse.
The process is as circular as this argument is in danger of becoming. That’s what comes of trying to formulate ideas on a crowded train when your brain is still full of music, ahem.
But quite apart from my solipsistic theoretical ramblings, I am happy to commend Scunthorpe and its choral singers as a vibrant scene to watch out for. Sue Hollingworth invited the participants in her opening welcome session to embrace the reputation the town has for good choirs, and it looks to me like she has a point.