BABS QuartetCon 2021

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Guest quartet MidtownGuest quartet Midtown

The weekend saw the UK’s first live national barbershop contest since the start of Covid, with and event that included the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ Preliminary quartet contest to qualify their 2022 Convention, the Barbershop in Harmony Mixed Quartet Contest, and an evening show. This wasn’t the first live barbershop event event – LABBS held a number of regional gatherings the previous weekend as a halfway-house back to a national Convention – but it was the nearest to normality we’d seen this side of the pandemic.

I’ll have various musical reflections to make in due course – I went along as much as anything to get a snapshot ‘state of the nation’ impression of how everyone is getting on these days – but for today the main things I’m thinking about involve the experience of doing something normal again after all we’ve been through.

I hadn’t gone along to any of the live LABBS events as I hadn’t felt ready for a massed sing yet at the point I'd have needed to book, and indeed we’d booked our hotel for the BABS event on a deal that we could cancel on right up to the last minute if we chose.

The experience in the auditorium felt very safe – it’s a large space, with good ventilation, and a small enough audience to feel that we weren’t packed in. (Though also a big enough audience to feel like we had a sense of occasion and could support the quartets well I'm happy to say.) The event was also requiring proof of covid status (full vaccination, natural infection in the previous 6 months or a negative test) for entry. Having caught Covid while full-vaxxed from someone else who was also fully-vaxxed earlier in the autumn, I was aware that this last measure was no guarantee of safety, though it did significantly improve the odds for everyone.

The experience in the afterglow felt much less comfortable for me. People were much closer together, and there was a lot of unmasked singing in groups standing facing each other. Well, it was an afterglow proceeding in a perfectly normal fashion – the only difference was in how I felt about that in our changed circumstances.

The biggest weirdness over the weekend, though, was in negotiating intimacy. I discovered (having clearly not spent enough time thinking about it in advance) that I really wasn’t ready for all the hugging that barbershop events usually involve. At the same time, it was very odd not hugging a lot of the people who were there – people I’ve been on close hugging terms with in some cases for a couple of decades. It made me seem quite stand-offish, and felt like it put a barrier between us.

In a few cases, we had long enough conversations to find our way into that ease of interchange where you’ve moved beyond politeness and catching-up of news, but it is the nature of these events that a lot of conversations happen in the interstices between other things and are necessarily quite fleeting. It made me realise how much the norms of physical affection within in the community act as a way to short-circuit the distance of not having seen each other for months and allow you that sense of picking up where you left off last time you met.

And we had a much bigger gap to bridge than usual of course, which exacerbated that sense of distance. As, I suppose, did my propensity to continue masking indoors in a situation where most people didn’t.

Rationally, of course, I was one of the safer people in the building: having recovered from Covid just 6 weeks before, I was less likely than most to catch it again just yet. But as I interrogated my caution, I realised that it was also quite rational to try to avoid coming home with a cold. That would prevent me from live musicking as much as Covid would these days.

And events that bring people from around the country (and indeed the world) together are great ways to share colds – everyone turns up with their own local viruses that they are used to living with and comes down with the bugs that other people have brought. The last convention I went to in 2019 gave me a doozy that turned into a chest infection and then pleurisy, and the last time I saw the baritone of guest quartet Midtown, he was totally clogged up with a cold picked up at BinG! Harmony College. I could really do with not having to miss any more rehearsals on the run up to Christmas!

I will get onto reflecting on the musical experience in due course, but wanted to work through my feelings about the covid-safety dimensions of the event first, not least because this was in many ways a trial run for other, bigger events to come next year. By next Spring, things will be different again in terms of risks – I hope at any rate case numbers will be back down from their recent surges in the UK – but we’ll likely still be negotiating our way round some of the same questions, and needing to work out how we manage them socially. Good to have had the chance to figure some of this out in a relative microcosm.

As well as good to hear lots of live singing. Thoughts on that coming up next!

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