LABBS Quartet Prelims 2022

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Seeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social mediaSeeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social media

On Saturday, The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers held the preliminary contest for quartets to qualify to compete at Convention in the autumn. With 31 quartets competing for 16 places, it felt like the quartet scene is in good shape, and there were a good many new ones who have formed since we last convened in person in 2019. Many of the quartets stayed on for the Sunday to receive extended evaluations-cum-coaching sessions, a model that encapsulates the philosophy at the heart of LABBS contest system: that competing is a means for growth, and that education is an inherent part of the cycle.

A friend I ran into during the first break remarked that he always wonders, seeing me at the events, what I’m going to write about in my blog after it. This made me laugh, because at that point I was wondering the exact same thing! As it happens, two observations rose to the top as the day went on.

The first was about music. Having been thinking a lot earlier in the year about the differences in arranging for male- and female-voiced ensembles, I was really primed to notice the difference it makes in performance. I found it very audibly apparent when groups were singing music that had been voiced for men and transposed versus voiced for women in the first place. The latter just locked much more readily into a coherent unit sound.

This is the kind of things that it takes a full day’s listening to feel safe about generalising. With just a few quartets, the differences you’re hearing may be simply a function of their differing skill levels. But when you get to hear both conditions across a gamut of experience levels and command of craft, you can start to control for that. It is a robust generalisation that, whatever the stage of the journey a female quartet is at, they produce a more convincing performance when performing music that’s voiced well for upper voices.

The other observation was one that, even after all the years going to these kinds of events, I had never been in a position to make before. For Saturday was my first time MC-ing a contest. (I was all lined up for 2020, but well, you know.) I’ll note in passing that I love doing this and will be very happy to do it again any time, but that’s not the thing I wanted to share with you.

The way the performing space works at this venue means that the MC and Stage Manager spend the performance sitting behind and off to the side of the performing quartets. It means we couldn’t see the faces of the singers on stage, but we could see the faces of all the audience members. Watching people watching performances was fascinating.

I wrote many years ago about Arnie Cox’s work on the role of mirror neurons in the listening experience. You could see in the listeners’ faces and body language a more contained, but no less vivid, version of the mental joining-in documented in that post. Audience members were clearly captivated, living every step of the journey with the quartets. Occasionally you’d see someone’s lips moving along with the lyric. Frequently you’d see shared facial expressions across swathes of people; you could very readily tell whether the quartet were smiling or being yearny. (To be fair, you could hear that too; I wonder how readily apparent that would have been if I didn’t have the shared aural experience to frame my reading of people’s face?)

There are a few ways in which this audience is perhaps atypical. Nearly all of the people there were either fellow competitors, or hardcore barbershop nuts who also love quartetting. So everyone there knew what it’s like to be doing what each performing quartet was doing, and so were listening with an unusually high level of empathy. Also, the lighting in the space is such that the audience remains visible to those on stage. A number of conversations revealed that audience members are aware of this and felt an obligation therefore to be visually encouraging to the performers. (The late Roger Payne used to refer to this as ‘giving good face’.)

But the sense of ‘living in the same house of being’ that I witnessed went far beyond any kind of self-aware signalling. People were genuinely lost in the music, deeply involved with the detail of events in the moment. It felt like an executive summary of the whole point of live performance, and it was magical.

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