Preliminary Quartet Thoughts

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3/4 of Monkey Magic with a bag of trophies3/4 of Monkey Magic with a bag of trophiesLast Sunday saw a marathon BABS quartet prelims come to my erstwhile place of work, with 43 quartets competing in the national, senior and youth quartet contests. The biggest outcome of the day (though not the most surprising) was Monkey Magic winning the youth contest again to qualify to compete in the collegiate contest at International one more time before they get too old for it. After singing, they dashed off to Manchester to audition for Britain’s Got Talent, leaving their dads to receive the trophies on their behalf – which is quite endearing, and represents a lot that is going right in BABS right now. They did show their faces again in Birmingham right at the end of the day, though Alan had disappeared before I managed to get the photo!

One of the factors that has been supporting the development of the quartet scene in BABS is removing any restriction on how many quartets an individual may compete with. I’d remarked with approval back in May how experienced quartetters were appearing with new guys to help them on their way. On Sunday I observed a pattern of the people who appeared with more than one quartet having one in which they were the experienced guy, and another operating at a significantly higher level. This seems entirely healthy to me – it means that individuals don’t have to choose between sharing their expertise to develop new talent and taking on challenges themselves. After all, people who like quartetting almost by definition are the ones who like to be stretched.

There was also an interesting pattern of quartets featuring leads who have significant experience (often up to and including gold medals) singing other parts. Many of these singers also have current or recent experience as chorus directors, and this suggests an interesting development route through one’s barbershop ‘career’. Where once the excitement may have come through handling a harmony part, with all the challenges to musicianship that presents, once this has been mastered, a new desire emerges to take control of the expressive and communicative direction of the performance. You hear interesting debates around these quartets about whether the erstwhile harmony singer has a ‘genuine’ lead voice – and it’s clear that the timbral markers of lead singing emerge more slowly than the dimension of musical leadership. But these transitions are fascinating case studies in the relationship between the ‘natural’ voice, personality and genre-specific musical functions.

On a personal note, it was a truly strange experience to judge a barbershop contest in the concert hall where I used to examine postgraduate recitals every summer, and indeed to meet with my fellow judges in the board room I’d used for meetings for ten years. But it was socially satisfying too – like being at a party where everybody knows someone, but nobody knows everyone.

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