On the Liberalising of the Barbershop Style

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One of the things that has happened in the five years since I stopped being a barbershop Music judge is that there has been a deliberate policy to frame both the category description and the way it is used in practice in ways that will encourage more new music. And you’d have to say it has been largely successful. We are hearing a much wider variety of songs in contest than we used to.

In part this has been about loosening rules so they express what is best practice rather than a ‘do-this-or-else’ approach. So, for example, the chord vocabulary is now presented in a hierarchy of ringability, rather than with the distinctions between chords that are allowed, those allowed under certain circumstances, and those not allowed. All chords are allowed, but if you want to score well, keep using lots of major triads and barbershop (dominant-type) 7ths as they are the most barbershoppy.

These most recent changes, however, mark less a change in direction than the culmination of a process. The move to a more holistic approach has been the general trajectory of the changes in the judging system since the major overhaul of 1993. But it takes time to change culture, both within the judging community and the constituencies it serves, so both vocabulary and habits have taken time to evolve.

One of the long-standing issues that resulted in a general risk-aversion in repertoire choice was the combination of a fear of penalties with a general sense of mystery about what constituted the required stylistic features. The latter was at least in part due to the Music Category being couched in technical language not accessible to all barbershoppers. But it was also due to a sense that you couldn’t quite predict how the rules would be applied – where there is room for judgement, there is room for inconsistency. Hence, picking tried and tested repertoire was seen as the best way to avoid a nasty surprise.

In these new, liberal days, the general openness to a wider range of music has succeeded in reducing this risk aversion. It hasn’t however necessarily reduced the degree to which people are hazy about how the judging of style works. If anything, the periodic jiggering with the Category Description over the years has made the rules something of a confusingly moving target.

I saw a truly splendid summary of the current situation articulated by my friend Mick Dargan in a Facebook thread a while back:

good barbershop is good barbershop but now they've added a new dimension where crap barbershop is OK(ish) but very few folk know why.

I wanted to share this not just because it made me laugh with its aptness (though that is reason enough in itself). But also because it crystallised a thought I’d been having about the new music that has been coming through. It happens with moderate frequency that I hear a new arrangement and make some curmudgeonly remarks to myself about various shortcomings I perceive, and then have to remind myself that I would rather people were trying new things than not, and we can’t expect all of them to work equally well.

Because it is an inevitable side-effect of greater freedom that you have more scope to make a hash of it. You not only have more options to choose from, but you are not necessarily practised at handling all of them. And if artistic experiments aren’t being slapped down with penalties, they still present the ‘well to what extent did that work?’question to the judges. Who are likewise charting new territory – they have had much more practice at assessing music new to them now than they did a few years ago, but every time someone innovates, they have to become more flexible and creative in how they respond to it.

So, for people watching the contests and trying to assess what counts as successful repertoire from the results, it will look very much in flux. And of course the majority of the score is still basically about how skilled the performers are, so the impact of repertoire choice on the score is not always easy to discern. Though the material can still significantly inflect the score either by helping the singers (artistically and technically) or by presenting them with obstacles.

And the general distinction between ‘what is good barbershop?’ and ‘what is good art?’ still remains – the ideal is to do something that ticks both boxes, but not every example achieves that. We are quite often presented with an arrangement that has achieved good barbershop but has compromised distinctive flavours in the original in the process. Or a song that captures the original well, but doesn’t readily accommodate the high-stakes emotional arcs that barbershoppers like to invest their contest repertoire with.

If you want to make me really grumpy, compromise on both counts at the same time. Take an interesting song, squeeze barbershop harmonies into it that distract me by their difference from the original, but still leave me in doubt as to whether it’s really barbershoppy enough for contest purposes. When I turn down a commission, it will usually be for fear of producing that kind of result.

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