LABBS Harmony College 2016: Initial Reactions

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Nickie James welcomes the assembled delegatesNickie James welcomes the assembled delegatesI am just home from a rather wonderful weekend with the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers, in which singers from all over the country gathered in Nottingham for a weekend of education and musical bonding. LABBS hasn’t used the Harmony College format for some years, having focused instead on themed and regional events on a rolling schedule. This has had the advantage of reaching more of the membership in total, as well as allowing those with multiple roles (quartet singer and chorus director, for instance) to access education for each. But there is a buzz about a big occasion like this that anyone who was there would not have wanted to miss.

I have, as you’d imagine, a pile of notes about things I learned and ideas I want to explore, both from the Directors Stream I was running and the plenary sessions. But in the first instance, as I’m writing this the morning after I got home, the impressions I’m processing are about this sense of occasion, and how it impacts on the learning process.

So, the first factor is that this was a multi-stream, and thus multi-themed event. Whilst this gave a downside in that people had to choose which of their barbershop roles they developed, it gave several opportunities that single-theme events don’t. First, and most simply, it meant that there were simply a lot more people there: I have written before on the emotional hot-housing that massed-voice events promote, and we experienced this here.

It also meant that there was a greater variety of faculty expertise on hand. All delegates heard from guest educators Sandi Wright, Doug Harrington and Sally McLean in plenary sessions, and many also had visits from one or more of them in their streams. Additionally, the programme included picnmix sessions which gave further opportunities to learn with different faculty members. The picnmix classes also gave delegates the chance to meet and learn with people from different streams, getting the benefit of the wider range of delegates as well as faculty.

The second factor is that it was a residential event. Two days of education not only doubles the amount of formal education time available, but multiplies the opportunities for informal and peer learning many more times. On a single day, you get the benefit of interacting with other delegates in the breaks, but at the end of the day you all go home. At a residential event, you carry on those interactions over dinner and then into the bar.

And if you are barbershoppers, the informal learning doesn’t stop when the bar closes. The chapter of my book on barbershop that people from within the community always like the most is the one about tag-singing. Late at night, as the crowd thins out, the hard-core harmony lovers huddle together to stretch each others’ brains and create fragments of satisfying musical beauty. This is where the deep learning of intuitive musicianship is developed, as well as the social bonds that allow people to maintain warm and lasting friendships with people they may only see two or three times a year.

The third factor that gave this weekend such a sense of occasion is the fact that it’s not a regular part of the organisation’s programme. There was an incredible buzz around it in the weeks and months leading up to it. This isn’t just the social media frothy kind of buzz either: whenever I’ve met or corresponded with LABBS people this year, the subject of looking forward to Harmony College has routinely come up in conversation. It is also the associations 40th anniversary this year, and so the college became part of the year-long celebrations that will culminate in this autumn’s convention.

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