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Soapbox: Allocating Parts for Emotional Damage

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soapboxIn SATB music, it’s relatively easy figure out which part people should sing if they don’t already know. The texture is built around a divide by sex, with a split between higher and lower voices in each. So you just see what kind of range someone has, and slot them in where the notes they have and the notes the music needs coincide. Some people (counter-tenors, female tenors) defy the first part, but the stratification by range still works, so the model as a whole presents safe a generalisation of how to go about things.

One of the defining characteristics of barbershop music is that the parts are all much less differentiated by range (there’s a clue in the description ‘close-harmony’). Thus, most people can readily sing at least two of the parts, usually three, sometimes all four. You’d think this would take some of the pressure off the decision-making process of part-allocation, but in fact it seems more often to intensify the reliance on social stereotyping in identifying parts.

I’ve written about the part-identity formation process in both my books, so if this is something you’re interested in at a level of practical sociology, I’ll point you to Chapter 8 of The British Barbershopper and chapter 6 of Choral Conducting and the Construction of Meaning. But today I’d like to fulminate against a particular short-hand approach to part-allocation common in the barbershop world, which is both lazy and damaging.

This approach starts off by shaving off the low voices for bass and the high voices for tenor. The first of these is the only sensible bit of the process, as size of larynx is the biological determinant of low range, and whilst you can extend your range through practice, those people with larger larynxes will always make more convincing bass singers. The tenor line in barbershop is more complex since it is typically sung in a falsetto mode, and so the range of the full voice is not a reliable predictor of how people will take to tenor, especially in men. Plenty of basses can also sing barbershop tenor.

But it’s the next stage of the process that makes me leap up onto my soapbox. This is where the people in the middle of the range bell curve are divided into baritone or lead according to whether they have ever played an instrument. The thinking seems to be: baritone is the more musically challenging part, so let’s give it to the people who are already musically literate, and give the relative musical novices the tune.

Which, on the face of it, has a kind of logic. It probably gets an answer that does actually suit the people involved much of the time. But it does so in a way that can ultimately hobble the chorus as a whole.

The problems it creates are both musical and human. At a musical level, you want the lead line sung by people with a certain clarity of tone and commitment to melody. This is the heart of the song’s story-telling. Some people who have learned musical instruments have this combination of vocal/musical attributes, and you want to foreground them in lead rather than hide them away in the baritone section. The lead line also requires a wider range than the bari, and makes greater demands on the breath, especially at the ends of phrases, and again you want to flush out and feature those skills when they walk in the door.

A tangential but related rant is that if you are stereotyping the baritone line as outré and peculiar and only singable by nerds, you need to source better arrangements. A decent chart will have lines that everyone can perform expressively. And you don’t have to have instrumental experience to enjoy the baritone experience of melding into the harmonies and luxuriating in the colour.

From a musical perspective, then, we should be thinking: what part would this voice best suit in quartet?

From a human perspective, the problem with the muso/non-muso split for baris and leads is that it creates a very clear hierarchy between the two parts. Baritones are cast as the clever ones, and leads as the people with no distinguishing features, and whom therefore the director implicitly does not respect. This all too often develops into a culture of bullying in which everyone, but especially the baritones, feel free to be rude about and to the leads.

Even if you don’t have the totally toxic version of this, in which the baritones are constantly complaining that the leads are flat, you are still left with a culture in which the leads carry a constant burden of impaired self-esteem. People who, left to their own devices, would choose to sing lead because they love melody, have the meaning of their barbershop experience soured from the get-go when they are assigned to the section because of a lack of instrumental experience rather than for any positive characteristic. And how can you expect people to sing freely from the heart when their hearts are bruised and constrained by the process by which they came to be singing the tune?

This part-allocation model is not the only source of the emotional damage routinely inflicted on barbershop chorus leads (I have written about another dimension here), but it is possibly the clearest articulation of the belief structures that underlie it. If you ever listen to a chorus and think the leads sound under the pitch, you are hearing the traces of a culture that systematically undermines them inscribed into their musical identities.

So, when you find yourself thinking, ‘the leads need more support,’ you are right. Give them moral support, and respect, and appreciation, and autonomy, and all the things that human beings need to flourish, and the vocal stuff will sort itself out.

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