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Barbershop in Ireland

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Note-Orious 8: International silver medallists Note-Orious sing with National silver medallists Note-Orious 4 in the afterglowNote-Orious 8: International silver medallists Note-Orious sing with National silver medallists Note-Orious 4 in the afterglowI spent last weekend in Galway as a judge for the Irish Association of Barbershop Singers’ convention. The association is one of the world’s smallest at around 250 members, but proportionately to the population of Ireland, this is as at least as high a participation rate as in other countries, and the convention sees an impressively high proportion of them attending.

The event punches above its weight in the barbershop calendar. This is because in addition to its national contests for quartets and choruses, it has an international dimension. Many new but ambitious quartets from Europe dip their toes into the water of contest for the first time over there, so people have learned to keep an eye on the Irish Convention for the coming new talent.

Havoc won here in 2004, for instance, before working their way up through the medals in LABBS contests, and International bronze medallists Ringmasters burst onto the scene in 2007. This year’s winners, Class Ring, came all the way from Ohio; their performance delighted the audience for bringing a truly international level of contest to the IABS stage, and their win delighted their entourage of friends who had come over with them.

I last judged over here in 2008, and this year I noticed a significant increase in standards in both the men’s and women’s competitions. Indeed, the winner of the women’s quartet contest, Déjà Vu, also entered the International contest this year, and placed third. The international dimension has always been a means for Irish groups to build a wider awareness of performance trends (and of course a wider network of barbershop friends), but it’s great to see it also offering them a progression route into a more challenging competitive pool.

A useful feature of the convention is that, in addition to feedback to the individual groups competing in the national contests, there is a 2-hour masterclass session on the Sunday morning open to all participants. This is something of spontaneous occasion, since what happens depends on which performing groups turn up ready to sing. But the coaching-under-glass format gives an opportunity to start groups off on their next stage of development while the memory of their contest performance is still fresh in their minds.

We started up with some gentle physical and vocal warm-ups for all participants. (As a presenter I knew I needed it even if the singers didn’t!) Mark Grindall, Barry Clinton and I then worked with a series of choruses and quartets on three main themes that we had identified as common development needs across multiple competing ensembles over the previous two days.

Mark focused on fundamentals of vocal production, especially posture, and provided some simple rehearsal techniques to free up and unify the sound, including bubbling and singing to vvv. Barry gave some practical help in how to integrate the singing of a tune-up chord into the start of a performance so that it serves its purpose to establish the key and settle singers whilst also building rapport with the audience. I explored the way that rhythm is embedded in the body, and how the physical shapes we use to characterise a rhythm can enhance both a song’s expressiveness and ease its vocal delivery. Nothing helps a chorus get into a swing groove quite so easily as having an audience of several dozen acting as their rhythm section!

We then went out to the foyer of the convention hotel to find tea and scones being served. This strikes me as an eminently civilised way to close a convention, and brought home how intimate an occasion the event is. There are many reasons why the IABS Convention has earned its reputation as a friendly and welcoming event – not least of course that the Irish pride themselves on their traditions of hospitality. But the size of the event is part of it too, I suspect. There is something special about a convention at which you can accommodate everyone in the same party.

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