A Cappella

On the Whitewashing of Barbershop: A Case Study

Shine on meShine on me

This probably won’t be a long one as I’m not sure I have much more to say than, ‘Uh, look at this, the record needs correcting,’ but we’ll see how we go.

We all know by now that barbershop was originally an African American genre (though there was a considerable level of interchange between white and black traditions in its heyday as a commercial genre in the early years of the recording industry). We also know that when a revivalist movement in the 1930s led to the formation of the Organisation Formerly Known As the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (or TOFKASPEBSQSA as I like to think of it), the new institution not only excluded African Americans from its membership, but also systematically removed any mention of the genre’s black origins from its standard narratives.

It’s very easy to think that was all in the past and that now the historical record has been corrected we’re all done. Whereas in fact there are all kinds of ways in which we’re still living with the legacy of those decisions, usually without realising.

Coaching Conductorless Rubato

The main benefit of online coaching: good screenshots of people laughingThe main benefit of online coaching: good screenshots of people laughing

I spent a rewarding afternoon on Thursday with a quartet who had contacted me for advice about how to manage rubato in an ensemble without a conductor. They formed from within a choir they all sing in so are accustomed to using the visual signals from their musical director to coordinate them, and were finding the lack of this external guide one of the major challenges of singing in quartet, especially in music that isn’t strictly in rhythm.

We split the process into two distinct stages: how to rehearse, and how to perform. The former is where the group develops a shared understanding of musical shape and a shared awareness of each other in the ensemble. The latter needs a repertoire of interpersonal cues to transfer those understandings into the performance situation.

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Vocables

This post arises from a collection of random notes in my Thinking Book and conversations on social media, none of which were substantial enough to make a post of their own, but would if bundled together. So, a bit of a miscellany, but at least a themed one.

Vocables are the nonsense/neutral sysllables we use in a cappella to create accompanying textures. They are sometimes intended to evoke instrumental textures explicitly, but they’re often simply about creating a distinctive expressive profile for a song and providing expressive variety over the course of the musical narrative.

Change vocable when you change pattern

One of the things that takes up an awful lot of rehearsal time when working with human beings, especially human beings who work in idioms that involve memorising music, is handling the bits where a pattern changes. You set up a riff, and then some pesky musical detail like how the melody goes or a change in chord means you have to mess with it – in the process, messing with the singers’ heads just as they’d got settled into their stride.

Exploring Arrangement Choices with Amersham A Cappella

A topically sports-themed warm-upA topically sports-themed warm-up

Tuesday evening took me back to coach my friends at Amersham A Cappella on some of the new songs they’re working on. They seem to be in a particularly up-for-it and life-affirming mood right now in their repertoire choices, with anthems from Erasure and Aretha Franklin on the go as well as an exuberant number I arranged some years ago for Finesse quartet.

A recurrent theme of the evening was exploring the impact of who the music was arranged for on the arrangement choices. A fair number of the chorus had known Finesse, either in terms of hearing them perform, or knowing the individual singers personally. So it was useful for them to know that this was one of those charts where I’d been thinking not of the tenor, lead, bari and bass lines, but of the Helen, Beth, Tanya and Nicky lines. Handing round the melody wasn’t just a matter of seeing where the range fit best, but also of thinking about the personality and vocal colour of those individuals.

LABBS Quartet Prelims 2022

Seeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social mediaSeeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social media

On Saturday, The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers held the preliminary contest for quartets to qualify to compete at Convention in the autumn. With 31 quartets competing for 16 places, it felt like the quartet scene is in good shape, and there were a good many new ones who have formed since we last convened in person in 2019. Many of the quartets stayed on for the Sunday to receive extended evaluations-cum-coaching sessions, a model that encapsulates the philosophy at the heart of LABBS contest system: that competing is a means for growth, and that education is an inherent part of the cycle.

A friend I ran into during the first break remarked that he always wonders, seeing me at the events, what I’m going to write about in my blog after it. This made me laugh, because at that point I was wondering the exact same thing! As it happens, two observations rose to the top as the day went on.

Soapbox: A Cappella Arranging and Narrative Shape

soapbox My brain persists in thinking that many years ago I wrote about today’s primary point, but repeated searching fails to find any evidence of it. So maybe I only thought about blogging about it. It is certainly an opinion I have held since before I started this blog – there are arrangements I did back in 2006-7 where I can remember thinking about it. And my recent listening experience has me wanting my fellow arrangers to think about it too.

So the point is this: a cappella arrangements usually need to be shorter than versions of a song that include instrumental (and/or electronica) accompaniment. This is partly because when working with a limited timbral palette you haven’t got the resources to build such a large structure (in much the same way that orchestral pieces are often longer than chamber or solo pieces). With less opportunity to generate variety, longer structures can feel as if they are sagging under their own weight. This is particularly evident if you are also constrained texturally (as in contest-grade barbershop) but is true even if you have a free hand with your textural options.

Getting Connected with Main Street Sound

MainStSoundJun22

I spent Saturday up in York coaching Main Street Sound. We set the date almost 6 months ago, in the early stages of the UK's first Omicron wave, and looking back at the email thread, it was full of finger-crossing and hope. The capacity to make plans and feel confident you’ll be able to carry them out is something I never fully appreciated prior to Covid!

Reflections on Gender in Songs and Performers

Back in the early days of this blog I wrote about how some songs are gendered, either implicitly or implicitly. Sometimes it’s just a surface effect of pronouns, and you can readily adapt the song to an ensemble of the other gender either my changing a few words or by abandoning the assumption of heteronormativity. Other times, the persona’s gender is built more deeply into the song’s lyric and/or musical material and is less susceptible to switching.

At the European Barbershop Convention I found myself articulating a couple of thumbprints of implicit gender more consciously than I had before. One was the way some songs lie on the patriarchy-compensated slope: they build giving away power as a token of commitment, the lyric goes down on one knee, so to speak. When sung by a male persona, this mitigates a cultural context of inequality; when sung by a female persona, it exacerbates it. ‘All I possess I surrender,’ is an expression of superlative sacrifice from a man, but for a woman it merely indicates a willingness to return to the oppressive norms of yesteryear when that’s what happened by law when you got married.

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