LABBS at Cheltenham

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LABBS Quartet champions, FinesseLABBS Quartet champions, FinesseThe Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers had their annual convention last weekend at Cheltenham Race Course, and the association looks like it’s in good health. The White Rosettes consolidated the new level they reached out for when they won two years ago, getting scores solidly into the 80s, and the next six places were all scoring into the 70s. Indeed, second-place average score of 79.9 would have produced a gold medal most years.

The quartet contest was likewise quite splendid, with Finesse and Enigma demonstrating decisively how allowing previous champions to compete again is good for the quality of performance in the association. Both quartets brought a level of technical assurance and musical communicativeness I’ve not seen on the LABBS contest stage before. It was also heartening to see the Jazz Firm up and singing again with a new tenor, Chris Lamb, after the sad loss of Uli Grigoleit last year.

And people seemed in good spirits; there was a buzz and bounce about the atmosphere. Sure, people generally go and have a good time at Convention, but the balance of conversations seemed more positive than sometimes as I walked around the venue. I didn’t hear many people moaning about things, and I did hear quite a lot of good news. It could be that having lots of good performances going on lifted the spirits, or it could be that being in good heart helped people sing better. Either way, I have a hunch that the correlation of quality and good cheer is not a coincidence.

The thing I really noticed, though, was how the youth choruses (of both sexes) have helped the association develop a much more healthy age profile. It’s not so many years since you’d see a lot of choruses that were largely middle-aged, with just one or two young faces, who would therefore get clucked over in a rather patronising fashion. Now, even if a chorus only has one or two younger members, they’re no longer aberrational – with a peer group at association level, it’s now normal to be 20. And – this is an impression, with no actual statistics to back it up – it looks like there are also more people in the age bracket of too old to be in the Ivy League themselves, but not old enough to have daughters in it.

Indeed, one of the things that I find really interesting about the youth chorus movement is the age bracket of around 8 to 25. It really glues together age groups that would often be separated by the educational system. A sixteen-year-old barbershopper is both a role-model to younger singers, and has her own role models to look up to. And by extending the age range right up into adulthood, the Ivy League has been able to be much more self-sustaining from within than youth choirs who only take singers up to college age. Sure, they still have adult mentors and support (and with the younger children, obviously they’ll need people in loco parentis), but both committee roles and musical directorship of the Ivy League are now in the hands of singers.

The thing that I found really cheering, though, was that I didn’t hear anybody say, ‘Oh aren’t they wonderful – they’re our future!’ This always seems both condescending and rather cannibalistic – as if the only role of the young is to support the old, like the national insurance system. And, as my partner Jonathan has remarked, they may be ‘our’ future, but this is their present.

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