Performing

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.

Pitch and Paraverbal Expression

Last summer, Stefanie Schmidt visited the Telfordaires to lead a really interesting workshop on paraverbal markers: those elements of speech that don’t show up in written words but which carry so much extra information. Salience, attitude, strength of feeling, context all shine through in the inflections with which we pronounce anything we say.

A lot of singing technique involves, in the initial stages, learning to strip out the accidental lumps and bumps that these markers can insert into the vocal line. Two key elements of an effective legato are getting the tone running consistently through all notes, not just the ones that carry sense-laden meaning, and controlling consonants so they don’t add scoops or cut short vowels.

But the texts we sing still carry meaning, so part of learning to operate our voices at will is to be able to decide when and how to use paraverbal elements paramusically: articulation, timbre, dynamics.

Distraction Techniques in the Choral Rehearsal

A recurrent theme in the 3rd and 4th books of the Hitchhiker Trilogy is the technique of how to fly: you throw yourself at the ground, and miss. Obviously, the throwing bit is easy enough; the knack is to get sufficiently distracted during the brief moment before you hit the ground that you forget to finish the process. This leaves you suspended in the air, and the then trick for staying there, and indeed for swooping around and travelling about the place by flight, is not to think too hard about what you are doing.

Like many of Douglas Adams’s whimsies, this is both absurd and weirdly wise. Its very absurdity makes it a vivid metaphor for getting into that state where you can get on with stuff without crippling yourself with over-thinking or self-criticism. In Inner Game terms, it’s about silencing Self 1.

Developing the Vision with Route Sixteen

route16feb21I spent part of Thursday evening on zoom with my friends from Route Sixteen in Dordrecht. If covid had not come along, they would have recently have premiered an arrangement they commissioned from me as part of an ambitious concept set to defend their Holland Harmony championship, but instead they have spent the last year as we all have working round the limitations of our new circumstances to continue their musical journey as best they can.

They are still focused on bringing this concept package to fruition, either for the Dutch or the European barbershop conventions, whichever comes first, though they have found the vision adapting in some ways in response to the covid experience. We spent some time discussing the practicalities of how to rehearse and perform their ideas for staging as they emerge from lockdown.

Thoughts on Barbershop and Musical Comedy

The shibboleth in barbershop circles is that any attempt at comedy has, first and foremost, to be sung well if it is to work. The better it’s sung, the funnier people will find it. This post unpicks this assumption: there’s something to it for sure, but I don’t think it tells the whole story.

The reason why this generalisation seems generally plausible is, I think, because ‘well sung’ functions as an effective proxy for ‘thoroughly-rehearsed’ and ‘has high standards’. Ensembles that develop their skills in one of these dimensions typically improve in the others too. Lurking behind the truism is the memory of mediocre performances that were not very well executed as comedy, didn’t have enough jokes in them (those they did have being rather obvious), and that were also not very well sung.

But this is a case of correlation, rather than causation. It’s not necessarily the fact that they’re singing better that makes a successful group more funny. In fact, these two dimensions are at least moderately dissociable once you’re beyond the base level of ‘does the audience trust your skillset?’

Performance and Skill-Development

During the Telfordaires’ penultimate live rehearsal session of 2020, I found myself uttering words that I had not used since early February: ‘That’s about ready to perform, now.’ Not that we had anyone to perform to as yet – whilst we have negotiated our way round the logistics of covid-safe rehearsal, we are leaving the complications of adding an audience to the occasion until the Spring, when hopefully case numbers will be down and social occasions commensurately easier to manage.

[Edit: and between scheduling this post and its publication we went back into lockdown so we're not going to be rehearsing live for a bit now either. Deep sigh. Hang on in there, friends.]

But that moment got me reflecting once again on the relationship between performance and skill-development. I’ve written before about how the experience of performing repertoire contributes to its development in ways rehearsals can’t reach. To say something is ready to perform doesn’t mean that it’s a finished product (we’ve got plenty of work still to do on that song), but that it is at a stage when not only is it good enough to be worth sharing, but performing it will make it better.

The first thing that struck me was that the extent to which this process contributes to a choir’s development varies considerably depending on your typical performance patterns.

LABBS Quartet Day and the Subversion of Performativity

Elena from Sonic gives the executive summary of this postElena from Sonic gives the executive summary of this postFancy title, eh? This is what happens when a familiar event takes on an unfamiliar form: you learn all kinds of things about your ‘normal’ experience that might not have come into focus without the contrast. And sometimes the things you learn inspire the use of poncy words to articulate them.

The familiar event in this case is the quartet day at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention. In a normal year, this would involve both the semi-finals and finals of the quartet contest, featuring those ensembles who had qualified to compete at a Preliminary event back in June that combines elements both of contest and of coaching. This year it was replaced by an invitation for all quartets registered with LABBS to submit a video of up to 5 minutes; and almost 40 quartets ended up contributing.

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