A Snapshot of Barbershop’s Culture Change, Part 1: Song Subject

A representative sample from a large collection...A representative sample from a large collection...Back when I had first secured the contract to write my book on barbershop, the then Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire asked me in conversation, ‘So, what’s new in barbershop world?’ The question made me laugh, because the culture I was documenting was resolutely focused on celebrating the past, and really didn’t have very much interest in the new at all.

Of course, by that point – the early years of this millemium – the culture was already changing, but it was far from clear that how much of a shift would eventually take place. To be fair, we still don’t know that, but I had an experience recently that brought home how far barbershop has actually shifted since I first encountered it 25 years ago.

BABS QuartetCon 2021 – Further Random Thoughts

Having thought I’d corralled my main responses to our first weekend of live barbershop contest in two years in my previous two posts, I find a collection of miscellaneous thoughts popping intermittently into my head. (And where else would you expect thoughts, miscellaneous or otherwise, to pop, you ask.)

  • Key choice for Mixed Quartets. Back in 2012, my reflections on the UK’s first mixed quartet contest included observations about how the genre requires people to be flexible and creative in how they adapt to different voice parts and the ranges they might lie in when turning a genre that developed in and for voices working within largely the same range into one that encompasses a much wider set of vocal ranges.

    I find myself somewhat surprised, nine years on, how relatively few quartets really seem to have nailed how to pitch their songs so that the parts lie in the parts of their respective singers’ voices where they sound the best. You particularly notice it with the lead part – as curator of the melody, the heart of the song, you really want the tune to sit where the expressive ranges in their voice map coherently onto the expressive shape of the song. Quartets that didn’t compromise on this gave themselves such a head start in terms of communicative impact.

BABS QuartetCon 2021 – The Musical Experience

Kiera Smith's photo captures a focal moment of a barbershop contestKiera Smith's photo captures a focal moment of a barbershop contest

Having discussed in my last post the experience of going to a largely normal barbershop contest in the Covid era, it is time actually to talk about the musical experience – which is, as I understand it, the point of going to these things!

My headline impression from the weekend’s listening was that, vocally, the British barbershop community is sounding in pretty good shape all things considered. Of course, this impression is strongly shaped by the classic logical error of survivorship bias - by definition only those people who feel their voices are reasonable shape are likely to put themselves forward to perform on the contest stage. Indeed, a couple of competitors withdrew after the programmes were printed; we don’t know how many others self-selected out at earlier stages.

BABS QuartetCon 2021

Guest quartet MidtownGuest quartet Midtown

The weekend saw the UK’s first live national barbershop contest since the start of Covid, with and event that included the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ Preliminary quartet contest to qualify their 2022 Convention, the Barbershop in Harmony Mixed Quartet Contest, and an evening show. This wasn’t the first live barbershop event event – LABBS held a number of regional gatherings the previous weekend as a halfway-house back to a national Convention – but it was the nearest to normality we’d seen this side of the pandemic.

I’ll have various musical reflections to make in due course – I went along as much as anything to get a snapshot ‘state of the nation’ impression of how everyone is getting on these days – but for today the main things I’m thinking about involve the experience of doing something normal again after all we’ve been through.

More on Breath

In my last post I considered one specific way that James Nestor’s book Breath has got me rethinking how I train singers (and indeed, how I sing myself), today I will romp through a number of his other points that suggest our craft’s claim to healthfulness is more well-founded.

  1. Exhale. Many of us, Nestor contends, spend much of our lives breathing in shallowly on top of air that we’ve not fully exhaled. Emptying the lungs thoroughly between breaths gives us better gas exchange in the lungs (and thus better blood chemistry and thence better-functioning organs).

    Anyone I have directed, and many I have coached will know that I recommend people exhale completely before taking their first breath to sing. As a conductor I exhale too, and so can feel the natural timing for the coordinated intake to start singing. I observe that people who empty their lungs prior to singing take more deep-set, relaxed breaths and thus produce a more resonant tone. They also find it easier to sing complete phrases.

On Breath

breathWhen two people you know mention a book in the same week, especially when it's a book whose title relates directly to your core professional interest, you know you’re going to have to read it. James Nestor’s Breath isn’t written for singers (although one of his many eccentric case studies is a choral conductor), it is written for human beings who breathe. But of course those of us involved in singing like to think this is one of the things that makes our craft healthful, so it seemed prudent to check it out and see exactly how well things cross-reference.

Breath presents itself as one of those revelatory, ‘this book will change your life’ kind of narratives, and with its interweaving of ancient, traditional texts and modern science (though rather fringe science in some cases), skirts along that line between ‘engagingly plausible’ and ‘woo’. As one of the friends who had read it put it, ‘Some of it is quite bonkers, but some things make a lot of sense’. So, it’s not one to read uncritically, and I’m going to focus my discussion of it on the bits which seemed more likely.

(This may, therefore, turn into a display of confirmation bias, ahem.)

Back in Person with Surrey Harmony

How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?

Well, that was a treat! Wednesday saw my first live coaching visit since last Spring. It was Surrey Harmony, down in Coulsdon, whom I’d not worked with for 6 years or so. They had two new songs just off the copy, one of which I had arranged for them, and were ready to get their teeth into bringing the music to life.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how refreshing it is for an ensemble to have a different consciousness in the room, hearing new things, imagining different possibilities from the ones they are used to. It is equally refreshing for the coach to hear different voices, to diagnose different strengths and needs; these encounters stimulate the creativity in ways that your regular rehearsal can’t. The familiarity of a long-term working relationship brings the opportunity to build, but by definition doesn’t force you to listen and think afresh in the same way as you have to when faced with the unfamiliar.

Coaching and the Conductor-Choir Bond

Unmasked for the photocall!Unmasked for the photocall!On Wednesday I had my first live coaching experience since the start of Covid, when Andy Allen from Hallmark of Harmony came to work the Telfordaires. It was such a treat to have the input from a fresh consciousness after all this time, and it gave us all a real lift. And the experience got me reflecting on the ways a coach affects the intra-musical interactions of director and singers.

Those who have read my second book will know a good deal about my research into the nature and operation of the conductor-choir bond already; it is also a theme that runs through this blog over the years. But I don’t often write about it from the inside, from the first-hand experience of the conductor.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.


Archive by date

Syndicate content