Will it Shop?

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My title is the name of an education session to be presented by the Nordic barbershop organisations in a week or two’s time, pre-recorded at the weekend. For those outside the barbershop bubble, this rather cryptic-looking question is shorthand for: ‘does this song lend itself readily to being arranged in a way that will meet the style criteria for barbershop contest?’ The fact that this quite specialised and complex question can be reduced down to three syllables tells you that it is a subject that often comes up in barbershop conversations.

I’m not going to tell you much detail about the content of the session, because you can go and sign up and get that directly, but I wanted to mull a bit about a few observations I made en route.

The session takes the form of a guided discussion involving four arrangers: Melody Hine, Patrick McAlexander, Brent Graham, and me. We had been sent a set of questions to think about in advance, and also a playlist of songs sent in by class participants to discuss in particular. If you enjoy the session for nothing else, it’s a great set of songs!

There are various things I found interesting about the discussion, above and beyond the fact that I had three experienced and interesting musicians to hang out with, which was always going to be fun. The first was that, whilst we are all people who were probably invited because we have a reputation for ‘pushing the envelope’ on barbershop style, we all actually had very similar boundaries when it came to the kind of things that we would not want to arrange for barbershop contest.

I have been thinking in particular about some of Melody’s comments that articulated this in terms of personal boundaries – about when she started out she would say yes to everything, and how part of developing maturity as an arranger was in deciding when to say no. We usually talk about boundaries in art – especially the kind of regulatory boundaries like barbershop contest criteria – in terms of structures that corral the pure form of the genre and prevent it from interbreeding too much with other, different forms. It’s interesting to think about this using a metaphor of personal artistic autonomy rather than one of animal husbandry.

(For the record, I’m not particularly interested in ‘pushing the envelope’ per se. But neither am I particularly exercised about ‘preserving the style’. Plenty other people like debating where these particular boundaries need to be, I’m happy to work with whatever the current consensus is. I am interested in regularly hearing new arrangements in contest, so I have been very happy to see, and indeed participate in, the aesthetic shift of the last 15 years or so that has seen barbershop embrace creativity and innovation as things to be valued.)

Another thing I found interesting was that, while talking about specific songs, we all tended to latch onto different musical elements as key points that presented opportunities or pitfalls in the material’s suitability for barbershop. But at the same time, we often had similar levels of enthusiasm or reluctance for any particular song.

The collection spanned the complete range from ‘yes can I arrange it right now please’ to ‘no don’t even think about it’ with most living in the middle space of ‘well, here are some possibilities, but you’ve also got deal with these hazards’.

Having said that, I have a hunch that while in conversation we very readily saw each other’s points of view, faced with the decision of whether to shop something, and how to go about it, we might end up with wildly different answers. But that’s why we have different human beings. Wouldn’t it be dull if we all came up with the same ideas?

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