BABS in Brum

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The Great British Barbershop Boys perform their mammoth 'history of song' in the foyerThe Great British Barbershop Boys perform their mammoth 'history of song' in the foyer

Last Sunday saw the British Association of Barbershop Singers coming to my old home patch of Birmingham Conservatoire for their annual Quartet Prelims. This is the event at which quartets compete to qualify for the Convention in May, and at which the Youth Quartet and Senior Quartet contests are held. It has become an increasingly well-supported event in the barbershop calendar, both by quartets and by supporters.

This year they had over 50 entrants, and as a result chose to split the quartets between the venue’s two concert halls into parallel competitions. All the Senior quartets appeared in the Adrian Boult Hall, all the Youth quartets in the Recital Hall, and the quartets in the main contest were split between the two.

It was interesting what this set-up did to the feel of the occasion. It made the central concourse feel much more active as a social space, as people moved through it between the two halls. It also put the catering and seating facilities under less pressure as the breaks in the two halls were staggered. It also meant that, by definition, nobody could see all the performances, so there was a much stronger sense of anticipation about the results at the end of the day.

Both the Senior and Youth contests were the strongest I can recall seeing, both in number and quality of entrants. The winners of each contest had both also entered the main contest, and not only did both qualify comfortably, but Youth Quartet winners Mach 4 were seeded first overall.

This wasn’t the only way in which the Youth Quartet contest is feeding the main one. We saw the Quartetones graduate into the main contest from last year’s youth stream; and this was one of three quartets in the main contest which featured singers also competing in the youth contest. I have remarked before on the ways in which BABS’s liberalisation of the contest rules to remove restrictions on the number of quartets an individual can compete with has been positive for the development of the quartet scene as a whole – this is another manifestation of the same phenomenon.

There’s also a noticeable increase in the willingness to switch between parts. This has been creeping up on us for a while now, but seemed a more prominent feature of this year’s event. There was a time (and for many barbershoppers it is probably still the case), that the part you sang was pretty much fixed. You’d say ‘I am a baritone’, rather than, say, ‘I usually sing baritone’. The few people who liked to switch between parts were seen as a bit tricksy: useful, perhaps, but a bit suspect, like vocal cross-dressers. (Reading that back, it sounds like I’m saying that cross-dressers are also useful; that may be true, but I can’t immediately think of any examples of comparable utility to being able to fill in the tenor in a pole-cat.)

In previous years, part-switching seemed quite strongly correlated with doubling-up in multiple quartets, and with experienced harmony-part singers moving into the lead spot to take control of the musical trajectory of the performance. This year it seemed a particular feature of the younger generation. Monkey Magic (who are back with their old name to compete in May for a spot at International) have grown out of the Youth Contest, but they still have a sense of blazing the trail for that constituency. And not only did all four appear in other quartets on Sunday, but three of them did so in different parts from usual.

Special mention must go to Peter, lead of Forge and bari/bass of Quadzilla, who not only competed in both Youth and main contests, but covered three different parts over the two performances. Indeed, I think Quadzilla was the only quartet in which a part-switch occurred within, rather than between, quartets. Another special mention needs to go to the city of Bristol, where the ongoing relationship between both men’s and women’s clubs and the university’s barbershop society is working to great mutual benefit. Great Western Chorus had six quartets appearing on Sunday, of which at least three came out of this university connection.

Seniors champs, Just in TimeSeniors champs, Just in Time
Having talked about the family connections in evidence at last month’s LABBS Convention, I hadn’t thought to go over the same ground here. But I can’t resist mentioning Lads ‘n’ Dads, who fortuitously were drawn to sing last on the day – and thus to the biggest audience. Two years ago, when Monkey Magic had to dash off for an audition, their Youth Quartet trophy was collected by their parents on their behalf. This year, Alan and Duncan sang with their fathers. Given the adventures of the last year – rebranding as the Great British Barbershop Boys, record contract, UK tour – it was a lovely gesture. Nobody had thought that they would forget their roots, but the audience greatly enjoyed the public demonstration that they hadn’t.

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