A Cappella

A Champion Day

BACfeb24

I spent Saturday with my friends at Bristol A Cappella, working with them on music they will be performing as outgoing Mixed Chorus Champions at BABS Convention in May. What with their mic-warming duties, swan-song set and show spot, there’s a good deal more music to prepare for the event than you ever have to bring as a competitor, so we had a busy time. Fortunately, the groups who are faced with this packed schedule are the ones who have demonstrated skills that will win a contest so are up for the extra challenge.

Theo Hicks on Practical Aesthetics

The final plenary session at January’s LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend was led by Theo Hicks on the topic, ‘Philosophies of Musical Enjoyment: Listening for the Singers’ Joy’. It produced lots of things I wanted to reflect on, and because I kept getting them tangled up I have been procrastinating trying to organise my notes. But a recent conversation with another director who wasn’t there had me wanting to refer to it and so it’s time to try and untangle the thoughts to render them shareable.

The first thing to note the effect that having that title on the schedule had on the weekend’s overall agenda. It put the word ‘joy’ into our common lexicon in all kinds of contexts before any of us know exactly what Theo was going to talk about.

Tuning is a Performance Indicator, not a Goal

So here’s another one in the genre of ‘if you haven’t got time to read the post, the title says it all anyway’. I’ve had a few conversations recently about my preference to avoid talking about intonation in rehearsal if I can possibly avoid it, and it seems that some people equate this with not caring about intonation. So I wanted to clarify things a bit.

First off, I love the sound of in-tune singing. And by this I mean both singing that maintains tonal integrity (key note staying in the same place) and singing in which all the parts are in tune with each other. Both horizontal and vertical in-tuneness, if you like. And it’s not just the way that good tuning is more consonant and cleaner to listen to at an acoustic level, it’s all the way that it brings with it beauties of tone colour - clarity, ring, luminosity – and expressiveness that you may not hear at other times.

Soapbox: Stop Blaming the Singers for Pitch Loss When You’re Not Conducting in Tune

soapbox
So I seem to have produced a title today from the school of ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’ – i.e. one that gives the entire content in one sentence. So it you’re okay to say, ‘Right, got it, I’ll stop blaming the singers for pitch loss,’ then you don’t need to read any more of it. If, however, you’re not sure what I mean by this, then the rest of the post may yet be helpful.

As anyone who has worked with me will know, I very rarely raise the issue of the tonal centre dropping while rehearsing or coaching. It’s not that I don’t care about it, it’s just that I don’t regard it as helpful to draw singers’ attention to it. It just makes them worried, and the first thing that anxiety does to the voice is add tension around the neck and tongue and undermine connection with the breath – that is, it adds all the things that, vocally, make it more likely that you’ll go flat.

LABBS Convention 2023

Chorus champions Cheshire Chord Company: with thanks to LABBS social media for the picChorus champions Cheshire Chord Company: with thanks to LABBS social media for the pic

Last weekend took me to Harrogate to spend the weekend with my friends from the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers. Apart from a short stint of contest MCing on the Saturday I was free of duties, so could focus on collecting hugs and listening to people sing, and the quality of both types of experience was of notably high quality.

On Tag-singing and Gender

bshop book coverThe end of September marked the twentieth anniversary of the completion of my first book. It was another 18 months in production, so we’re a way off the two-decade milestone for publication, but in terms of the shape of my life, the submission of the manuscript is the more vivid memory.

When it came out, the two chapters that got the biggest response from within the barbershop community were those dealing with, respectively, gender and tag-singing. And there are ways in which both of those dimensions of barbershop culture have changed in the interim, and also ways in which they haven’t.

On the face of it, gender would appear to have seen the biggest changes, with the embracing of both mixed barbershop ensembles, and the increasing presence of men’s and women’s ensembles at the same events – whether competing against each other (as in the Barbershop Harmony Society, BinG!, and IABS), or in parallel contests with separate rankings (as in the European championships and SNOBS/Northern Lights joint conventions). My chapter title of ‘Separate but Equal?’ would be less of an immediately obvious choice today.

Inclusiveness, and how to do it: A case study

Last week, international barbershop had some big news: current International chorus champions, Music City Chorus from Nashville announced that they would no longer participate in Dixie District events while the District still kept that name. There have been ongoing discussions about the continued use of the Dixie label for this district over a number of years, and Music City Chorus’s decision came shortly after, and in response to, a decision to retain the name.

For those unfamiliar with the context of this, the Barbershop Harmony Society in the US and Canada is organised into a number of geographically-defined districts, each of which hold their own Conventions and educational events each year. These events both provide members the chance to be part of a musical community wider than their local chapters, and provide a qualification route to compete at International level. (‘International’ originally meant US and Canada, but now includes competitors from associate organisations from around the world.)

Going in Deep with Bristol A Cappella

BACsep23Saturday saw me back with my friends at Bristol A Cappella, coaching them for the first time since they stormed into a gold medal in the BABS mixed chorus contest in May. It is said that you start singing better the first time someone pins a medal on you, and there was definitely a new sense of assurance on show. They’ve always been an intelligent chorus, willing to engage with things that will help them improve, but the process of making those gains is quicker when the singers aren’t wondering whether they are capable of them.

Our task for the day was to work on four repertoire songs for their up-coming show to celebrate their 10th anniversary next month. It felt like the earliest times I worked with them, back before the barbershop mixed chorus existed, with a wider range of styles and repertoire, including a texturally-adventurous 8-parter. You can buy your tickets here: bit.ly/BAC10yearconcert

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