Next Step of the Journey with Welwyn Harmony

Same warm-up location, now with more peopleSame warm-up location, now with more people

There are many nice things about repeat visits to a group over a relatively short time frame. You get to build relationships, developing trust and mutual understanding, both of which facilitate productive work together. And you also get to see progress.

Three months on from my last visit,Welwyn Harmony feels perceptibly stronger. They’ve not had an entirely easy ride of things in the interim – the back end of the Omicron wave was quite disruptive for them – but there were noticeably more people in the room than earlier in the year. Some are returning members, some are new, and both bring a sense of energy to the whole chorus that is audible in the voices.

Helping People Back to Choir

VFPlogoI don’t know if there has been any attempt to gather data about the overall state of choral singing since covid, but all the anecdotal information I’m coming across suggests that choirs are mostly back up and going, but depleted. A few groups didn’t make it through and disbanded – not necessarily directly because of the pandemic, but the stresses of the situation brought underlying problems to breaking point. A few groups, meanwhile, have come back with increased numbers and are facing the enviable challenge of integrating a high proportion of new singers all at once.

Most, however, seem to be reporting a drop in numbers of about 30% from pre-covid levels. The first ones lost were those who opted out during the zoom era, either finding the whole online rehearsing thing presented too many obstacles for them, or dropping out after a while because they found the experience unsatisfactory. Some of these singers have come back on return to live singing, but not all.

BABS & EBC Conventions – Reflections on New Music

It is time to start marshalling some of the thoughts I’ve been having about the music I’ve heard at my first two in-person barbershop conventions since 2019. One of the interesting bits of context for this is of course that at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Category School in 2019, the Music Category came away with a slightly less ‘anything goes’ approach to style, but then coronavirus came in before that decision could be enacted in live contests.

So we were coming into these conventions with an extra 2-3 years' arranging time, but no real case law to see how that policy tweak would play out. As it happens, I heard tell of only one case of an explicit score reduction for style in the contests in Sweden, but it did not discernibly disrupt the overall scoring profile – you wouldn’t have guessed it from just looking at the numbers. So for the various other charts that I thought might have been on the windy side of the style, there may also have been some score reductions, but likewise of a magnitude that inflects rather than devastates the Music score, and thus not immediately sending out a ‘don’t go there’ message to other competitors.

European Barbershop Convention 2021+1

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.

Understanding Overwhelm

Before I start reflecting on my second barbershop Convention of the month, I’d like to share some of the thoughts I had while trying to understand the impact the first one had on me. Not having the stamina to do either as much listening or socialising as I would normally expect is quite easily explained by the phrase ‘out of practice’ – but what does this mean in this context? Why have activities that don’t require a huge amount of exertion become cognitively demanding?

According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, the process by which we handle input from our senses as we live in the world is one of prediction and verification. That is, we don’t just wait for sights and sounds to come in through our eyes and ears and then try to make sense of them, we carry round a model of how we understand the world to be, and just check the incoming sensory data against it to see if we were right. Most of the time it is: I turn my head and my coffee cup is still where I left it, and thus requires no new cognitive resources dedicated to it.

Overwhelmed to be Back at BABS Convention

Pic courtesy of BABS facebook feedPic courtesy of BABS facebook feedThis last weekend saw the first in-person barbershop Convention in the UK since before Covid. If the British Association of Barbershop Singers' Convention had fallen in its more usual spot in the calendar a month later, that honour would have fallen to Sweet Adelines Region 31, but that’s just how things worked out with public holidays this year.

Sing2022 was a smaller event than we have been used to in recent years. Both in terms of its duration – starting a bit later on the Friday, ending on the Sunday night rather than going into the Monday – and in terms of number of delegates. There were fewer competing choruses than usual, and many if not most of the choruses were visibly depleted in number since before the pandemic. This is a common experience amongst choirs across the country, not just barbershop, though people are starting to report a new uptick in interest as people feel more confident to go out do things again and are looking for new pastimes.

What is Vocal Freedom anyway?

VFPlogoHaving shared some of the background to The Vocal Freedom Project in a previous post, I thought it might be helpful to explore in a little more depth what I mean by the phrase ‘vocal freedom’ in this context. It is one of the ideas that is both multidimensional and holistic – you can think about it from a number of different angles, but in practice they all work together in a single, unified experience.

The Physical Dimension is the most obvious, in that it is the one we are most likely to directly perceive in ourselves and in others, both visually and aurally. We find physical freedom by shedding extraneous muscular tension – that is, muscular engagement that isn’t doing anything productive. Tongue, jaw, neck, shoulders, glutes are all areas we tense up when under stress then never quite loosen off again when the immediate stressor goes away. Our bodies get locked up, our breath becomes shallow, and we hear this in our voices as strain and loss of resonance. Vocal Freedom Project workshops start with the body as the dimension which is both most accessible and usually the most urgent to address.

On Creative Choices, Creative Intentions

Some of the voicings I have been puzzling overSome of the voicings I have been puzzling overOne of the orthodoxies of my musical upbringing and subsequent teaching life is that the performer should respect the composer’s intentions. In practical terms this entails, at the basic level, playing the music presented in the score accurately – i.e. all the pitches written, in the durational relationships represented by the notation.

This basic level is never really challenged, though it is inflected as you move educationally beyond a literalist approach to the score to understanding it as a document emerging from a historical and cultural context. ‘Style’ is the shorthand term used to embrace the range of types of information used as filters through which to interpret the written score: changing notational conventions, changes in the construction and thus sound of instruments, changing aesthetic ideals and their impact on tone production, articulation, timing, and embellishment.

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