A Cappella

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

On the Uses and Abuses of Key Lifts

It’s quite a few years since I last mused at length on the subject of key lifts, but my attention has returned to it in the wake of a couple of conversations I’ve had recently with barbershop friends. Interestingly, one was with someone who had come to the conclusion that she was done with them: she had heard too many, to the point that they just sound formulaic and are rarely well enough sung to transcend the cliché. The other was with someone who was keen to have one in an arrangement I was doing for his quartet, in a song which I felt not only didn’t need one but whose expression would be impaired by one.

As conversations are wont to do, I found the dialogues clarified my own ideas, and I have emerged with a more developed set of opinions than I had last time I blogged on the subject. Though, looking back, I don’t disagree with that post – I have merely had extra thoughts that inflect when I am likely to want to include or not include them in any given arrangement.

LABBS Quartet Prelims 2023

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?).

Back in Bournemouth with BABS

Trailblazers blazing their trail: pic courtesy of the BABS social media peepsTrailblazers blazing their trail: pic courtesy of the BABS social media peeps

The British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual convention this year was back on its traditional spot of the last weekend in May, and also back in the venue where I had my first encounter with the genre as a living tradition 27 years ago. Strange that I’m now one of the middle-aged ones who has been involved for years, but that’s apparently what happens when time passes.

Anyhow, this felt more like a ‘normal’ convention than last year’s. This was partly a function of the event itself – we had more choruses back in the contests, for example (though many still diminished in number). But it was probably more a function of how we are. Whether to hug or not is back to being a matter of the nature of a relationship rather than a negotiation of risk comfort levels, and we’ve gone back to only ageing one year between conventions, so the changes in our friends are more subtle, and of an order we are accustomed to.

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