Reflections on BABS 2017 Convention

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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.

This itself is perfectly healthy in its way. It is a facet of the suspension of disbelief that we need to bring to all performances we watch if they are to make sense. Without it, you’d never get your head round an ensemble singing a song written in the first person singular. But it was fascinating to experience how changing the official framework of expectations affects not just the judging panel, but also the wider musical community.

Related to this, I spent a lot of the weekend thinking about how performers’ relationships with their material affects their performance. Believability – as in the quality that helps an audience find it easy to suspend disbelief and enter into your world – is not just about the fluency with which you handle the elements of the genre that constitute the illusions you want to create. It’s also about the extent to which the performers themselves believe in the song.

There are three aspects I’d like to reflect a little more on just now.

  • Jeopardy (which I have already talked about a bit as part of the concept of stage-worthiness). The performers as well as the audience need to have some motivation to care about the story they are telling. This one came into focus for me with Cambridge Chord Company’s new introduction to ‘You Don’t Know Me’ which, by locating the narrative at the beloved’s wedding, significantly raised the emotional temperature of a song whose basic dynamic is well-known in the barbershop world. You can do this by creating a back-story of course, but bringing the back-story into the song itself made it more urgently present in the act of performance.
  • Meta-narratives. I have been getting interested as in recent times with the extra layer of meaning of what a song says back to the singers at the same time as they tell main story to the audience. Reckless did this very explicitly with their ‘Yes I Can’ song – where the message to the performers was the same as the main story - but it can also be implicit. There were all kinds of reasons why Bristol A Cappella had a significantly more successful performance this year than last (mostly to do with increases in skill and experience), but it probably helped the experience to be singing a ballad about solidarity and mutual support rather than one about loneliness and isolation.
  • Lit-up-ness. This is a consequence of factors like the previous two; something that results when you get achieve a good relationship with the material. When people are genuinely excited by the music, it makes all the focused work leading up to big performances joyful rather than a grind, and this joy is audible in the voices in performance. It’s not only repertoire that achieves this – you could hear how lit up The Royal Harmonics were by their vocal development in the last year – but it's a safe generalisation that songs that delight the singers make their voices sound better.

    This is one of the things that I love about being an arranger. It is always a pleasure to hear my work in performance, as I did from Spirit of Harmony in the contest, and Amersham A Cappella in the Sunday night show. But it warms my heart even more to see how much fun they had been having in preparation for the performances. Convention is only one weekend, but you have rehearsals every week. And if you want people to perform with joy in their voices, they need to have rehearsed with joy too. One of the arranger’s jobs is to make rehearsal night something to look forward to.

And finally, I wanted to share a lovely moment of audience support I witnessed during the chorus contest. As a chorus was coming on stage (I forget which one), someone just behind me shouted out, ‘Come on John!’ I then overheard him say to his neighbour, ‘Well, there has to be at least one John in there somewhere’. I just loved the way he’d found to give a random stranger an emotional lift just before they sang.

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