LABBS Quartet Prelims 2023

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Arriving for coaching on Sunday: LABBS media team capture the Reservoir Dogs moment...Arriving for coaching on Sunday: LABBS media team capture the Reservoir Dogs moment...

This past weekend saw The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers hold its quartet prelims weekend. As in its now standard model, there was the contest on Saturday, with many quartets staying on for coaching on the Sunday. This year Sunday also saw the mixed quartet competition in its new, more permanent, home in the British barbershop calendar. Though as I had commitments elsewhere that day I can’t tell you how it went – I’m sure if you head back over to social media though you’ll get some news and some nice pics.

I remarked last year that the LABBS quartet scene was sounding in healthy shape, and you’d have to say the same this year, with the top 11 quartets all achieving scores of 70 and above, and the next 9 or so still in the upper 60s. I was struck as a listener that the standard felt consistently solid: you could spend a lot of the time just relaxing into the performances and not having to listen carefully to help keep things on track. (It’s not just me feels like this when things are a bit wobbly, is it?).

It’s interesting to have the score line as a way to quantify that essentially qualitative experience – barbershop judging, like any assessment system in the arts, isn’t an exact science, but it’s very well calibrated for consistency in measuring the things it assesses.

Apart from being a reason to celebrate as a listener, and as a good indicator as to the health of the musical community, the number and quality of quartets was striking in the context of how the culture of LABBS has changed over time. Twenty years ago, when I was writing my book on British barbershop, I documented how the quartet was seen very much as a secondary ensemble to the chorus in the association at that time. I can remember being told very severely back in the late 1990s that ‘chorus always comes first’.

At an organisational level, it used to be that the association would only recognise quartets whose members were all members of a LABBS chorus. So, somebody who wanted to sing in quartet, but who either couldn’t get to or didn’t have time to also sing with a chorus, couldn’t join. I’m happy to say that I was involved in changing that rule: my take was that if somebody wants to pay membership dues to LABBS, the answer should be, ‘Yes, come on in!’. And there are a lot of quartets now with Club at Large members (i.e. members not affiliated with a chorus), some of which are former chorus singers who have space for quartetting in their lives, others of whom are members of Sweet Adelines choruses who have taken joint membership with LABBS.

For the rapprochement with SAI Region 31 is another big cultural shift in the past two decades. The generations who have followed on from the founders of British barbershop organisations have chosen to soften the sense of rivalry and mutual exclusion that clearly existed in the past, and have become more open to interchange between the two organisations. The main outcome appears to be that the really hardcore types just do even more of what they love by being involved in both, which has been good for standards across the board.

These are both long term cultural shifts, going back 15 years and more in their development. It occurred to me on Saturday to wonder whether the whole pandemic experience had also played a part in strengthening the quartet scene. There were significant chunks of time when choruses could only meet online, but it was possible to meet in small groups to sing in person.

This would only encourage people to form quartets in order to get some quality ensemble time with friends, but would necessarily strengthen the bonds with quartets already active. It also changed the meaning of singing in small groups for everyone: instead of feeling exposed as the only person singing your part, you suddenly felt less isolated than you did singing at home in front of a small screen. All those choruses who organised meet-ups of groups of six in back gardens for their singers did a lot to dissolve the fear of singing in small groups that underlies much of the reluctance to sing in quartet.

This last factor would also of course have enhanced the skills needed for one-a-part singing. For you can really hear the difference between a quartet of four nice voices singing accurately, and a quartet who know how to rehearse together to build a unit sound. And you’d have to attribute a good deal of that substrate of craft in the organisation to weekends like this. LABBS has built some imaginative educational models that not only provide coaching to quartets but also opportunities to learn from each other. And that is how you build effective performance traditions: you use lots of people as the storage device for embodied knowledge of how to do it well.

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