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BABS Virtual Convention 2021

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It is very strange being at home for the last weekend in May; for the last 25 years I have usually spent it in a town which hosts a large convention centre, missing the start of the summer weather to huddle indoors with a couple of thousand other people bingeing on barbershop music. This year, while it is not yet possible to convene safely in large numbers, especially indoors, we were still able to binge-watch barbershop at home, courtesy of the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ Virtual Convention.

The event filled most of the time slot it would usually occupy, starting on Friday afternoon and running all day and evening Saturday and Sunday. It also preserved the combination of contributions from member choruses and quartets, offerings from international guests, participatory events, education, and items that celebrated the ongoing life of the organisation such as long-service awards.

However, unlike the LABBS event last autumn, it moved away from the traditional structure that groups like ensembles together. Normally there would be quartet contests (semi-finals and finals) on Friday and Sunday sandwiching the men’s chorus contest on Saturday, with mixed choruses on Sunday or Monday. Instead, we had four ‘showcase’ sessions (interspersed between other activities) on each of Saturday and Sunday, each featuring videos submitted by members groups with a mix of both choruses and quartets.

Indeed, the programming had clearly been done with an eye for variety of watching experience. Not only was there a mix of type of ensemble, but there was also musical variety, and contrast between type/feel of video. I’m sure this made the watching experience more appealing, not least to friends and relatives that one could invite to watch one’s submissions much more easily than one could share one’s contest set in a normal year.

Whilst each showcase flew past entertainingly, I did find that this structure flattened the emotional shape of the weekend. Saturday and Sunday became much more alike than usual. Feeding us content in digestible chunks was a kind and wise bit of programming – we all get too much time on-screen these days – but it did take the edge off the addictive quality the live event brings with it, and which I had experienced virtually with LABBS six months ago.

This isn’t intended as a criticism – I am very grateful for all the efforts that the team put in to bring us together in ongoing difficult circumstances! – but just to reflect on the experience to see what can be learned from it. Much of me rather hopes we won’t need to develop much more experience in running virtual conventions, but the lessons will still be useful for other online events, of which I’m sure we’ll still have many even when we can also hold live ones. And the contrast also teaches us things about the regular conventions that we might not have noticed otherwise.

Given that neither the showcase material nor the previously-released videos entered into the various award categories were bound by usual style rules for barbershop contest, it was no surprised that we heard a more musically varied selection than at a normal contest. Interestingly, though, we still heard considerably more classic barbershop harmony – contest-grade, or close to – than we had at the LABBS event last autumn.

Indeed, I was entertained to note that the winner of the ‘best non-barbershop video’ award featured many if not all of the thumbprints of the barbershop style I had outlined in a session for my chorus in the run-up to the event – not just musical features (texture, harmonic choices etc), but approach to vocal styling/ensemble and communicative aesthetic that barbershop discourse doesn’t openly acknowledge as stylistic but are nonetheless key to performing successfully in the genre. Jonathan and I had a laugh about there not being any penalties for being too barbershoppy in a category of that title.

The videos are all still available if you’d like to go and catch up on any. In addition to the one linked above, which I’m sharing for obvious reasons, the sessions I’d most recommend, it turns out, are Sam and Hannah’s Must-See Performances. I’d not particularly clocked these as a high priority for watching (despite the title!), but looked at the first one out of curiosity and found myself immediately looking forward to the second and third sessions. If you want to understand, at an emotional level, what is meant by the word ‘connoisseurship’, you need to witness their utterly delightful combination of analysis and relish.

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