European Barbershop Convention 2021+1

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From which we learn that, as a continent, Europe has a good pyramid balanceFrom which we learn that, as a continent, Europe has a good pyramid balanceBarbershop conventions are like buses: none for ages and then three come along at once. After the BABS Convention at the end of April, I had one full day at home before setting off to Helsingborg to attend the European Barbershop Convention, postponed from last year.* It was run in conjunction with the Sweet Adelines Northern Lights regional convention and the Society for Nordic Barbershop Singers annual convention, making a complex matrix of rules, judging criteria and rankings for the organisers to manage. Everyone else could just follow David Wright’s advice when MC-ing on the first evening: ‘Just turn up and sing when we tell you to, and we’ll let you know when you win anything.’ Simples.

After my stamina difficulties the previous weekend, I was pleased to discover I’d found my second wind. I still had to pace myself a bit, but no more than I would have back before the pandemic. I heard all the visiting competitors in the European contests, and a sizeable majority of the Scandinavian groups, so am feeling properly updated about the state of the art across the continent. My brain also seems to have clicked back into gear and I’ve come home with a notebook full of things observed and learned, which will take some untangling over the coming weeks.

I guess the headline observations are about numbers. As with BABS, both the number of competitors and the size of the choruses seem to be down across the board since before the pandemic. This is partly because not everyone feels ready to travel to a massed singing event yet (especially amongst the groups from outside Sweden), but also many groups have lost members during the disruptions of covid.

Within this, it seems a fairly robust generalisation to say that the women’s game is numerically stronger than the men’s, again both in the number of competitors and the size of the choruses. This has been the case for some time, of course, but having the two Nordic organisations’ events running together made it really clear. Interestingly, the quartet scenes seemed more numerically even, suggesting that a higher proportion of male barbershoppers compete in quartet than female.

And while we’re thinking about proportions, you’d have to suspect that Sweden has the highest number of barbershoppers per head of population in the world. I mean, you could actually calculate that rather than just squinting into the light and guessing like I just did but I’ll leave that to people who are less lazy than me. I’m sure that if there is a country with a higher barbershopper-rate than Sweden they’ll pop up and tell me as soon as I post this.

The other headline thing to remark on is the EBC app, which they provided in lieu of a printed programme, and it was great. As well as being updatable during the event, it offered far more detail about the competitors and their performances than you usually get. In normal circumstances, every time I hear a piece of music I’m interested in, I have to write down the song and who sang it, then try and track down someone from that group (usually identifying them by their stage costume) to quiz then about it.

(Doing this, incidentally, is how I discovered how few people ever notice the arranger’s name at the top of their music. In years gone by we’d sometimes end up with a conflab between half a dozen chorus members about whether it was David or Larry Wright, and then it would turn out to be Aaron Dale; these days people can generally rummage in their phones for an answer.)

At EBC I just had to click through and there it all was. And as I was on wifi anyway, I usually also had a minute or two to google the song title to find its background – when it was written, who made it famous, remind myself of the lyrics. (I refrained from actually listening to the original on youtube in the auditorium between competitors!) Of course, this did mean that I got into fewer conversations than usual with people I didn’t already know, as it turns out that accosting people about their music is one of my primary ways of making friends. So I’ll need to develop some new social skills, but it’s worth it as a trade-off for an information-rich audience experience.

And there was a goodly quantity of new music to be heard, much of it arranged by Rasmus Kirgström, but with a few other arrangers from SNOBS in there too. It’s always a pleasure to hear new material coming to the contest stage, and that response seems to have sharpened for me since covid – I notice a hunger for the new in my choice of radio stations and classical concerts too.

The listening experience has fueled lots of reflections on arranging to be processed over the coming weeks, but the bigger-picture observation for now is that, notwithstanding the fabulous amenity of webcasts, how much more I learn about music – and about my own responses to it – by hearing performances in person. As they say, you don’t appreciate something until you’ve missed it.

*The third convention is the SAI Region 31 convention to be held this coming weekend in Warwick. I'm not actually going to this one, even though it is closest to where I live. I know a few people are doing the triple, and you have to admire their stamina!

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