Friday 29 May 2020

Barbershop is ...

By way of an interruption in the tedious and boring - sorry I mean fascinating and riveting - story of our Lockdown lives at home, here is something a little different.

Some of you may already know that I have been singing for the past fourteen years of my life, in a community choir, chamber choir, a barbershop chorus and quartet, mostly a capella. Actually I started singing as a boy treble in the village church choir, may be at the age of seven, then at school a bit but, after that I resided in a choral desert for many years until my working and family life allowed me to commit to anything on a regular basis. 

Now, I don't know where I'd be without it and, right now, in the first few months of 2020, is the hardest time imaginable for many like minded and devoted singers in harmony groups the World over. I wouldn't want to be without classical and contemporary choral repertoire, because there is so much beautiful music to choose from, which our MD at Fox Valley Voices chamber choir (of which I am fortunate to be a founder member) has in abundance in their repertoire. But it is my membership of Hallmark of Harmony that has provided another level to my singing experience.

Aside from its exceptionally talented music leadership and their continuous quest for and innovative ways in which they continue to achieve improvement in the quality of the chorus's vocal performance, there is something about completely a capella, close harmony singing in the barbershop style that has created a bond between its members, whose age range is evenly spread right across the spectrum from early to mid teens up to eighty plus! Perhaps it could be that there is no encumbrance imposed by the need to hold sheet music, or of the need for accompanying instruments, that enables the freedom to sing anywhere any time, particularly after a rehearsal or a show, at 'Afterglow' in the pub or a bar. Perhaps it's the synergy resulting from purely sung four-part harmony and its consequent over- and undertones. 

Perhaps it's the fact that the unity and brightness in the voicing means that you can always hear the lyrics, that those lyrics are delivered, performed, emoted to tell their story, which rings true in the lives of many singers. Importantly it also allows for a certain freedom of interpretation of the arrangement, with no fixed tempo, no marked dynamics and, particularly in the slower romantic ballads, where even note durations are not fixed by the way the arranger scored it. It is left to your own, or the musical director's design on how the song should be interpreted, imparting a uniqueness in any one performance by any one ensemble of singers. 

This bond extends beyond the chorus to the wider world of barbershop, which, in the 21st Century, is in the process of dispelling a myth - that image of older men with handle bar moustaches, in striped waistcoats, blazers and boaters, with sometimes shouty untrained voices, over-singing mid 20th Century standards. It is very different now, with so many young singers with fine voices and equally talented musicians,  composers and arrangers populating the stages of the Barbershop world, singing non-barbershop, even some choral repertoire, as well as true barbershop songs, pushing the boundaries little by little to bring it gradually closer to the main stream. Hallmark has therefore been a major force in my life for over five years.

It will be six years in October, before I'd even done my audition to become an official member of Hallmark of Harmony (who had in the previous May just won the chorus gold medal and become the British Champions for the seventh time in their then thirty six year history), when they asked me to sing with them at their guest appearance on the Saturday night show at the Ladies (LABBS) national event in the main theatre at Llandudno's Venue Cymru, to an audience of around two thousand. I had to learn five songs in less than three weeks, which I confess interfered a little with my then commitment as Chair of a local community choir, Waldershelf Singers, in their preparation for Christmas. That's history and this is now. As current British champions, for the eighth time, Hallmark have another year before they, hopefully, sing their swan song as champions in May 2021, after which they will be allowed to compete again in 2022.

In the mean time, it is something of a surprise that I haven't before written a poem about the effect that singing has had in my life, let alone barbershop (well, actually that's not strictly true, but more on that another time, perhaps). I can't explain this. I blame the muse, who has a mind of her own, which she only shares with me occasionally by tapping me on the shoulder with an inspiration from a sometimes unexpected quarter. The inspiration for this piece came from a seasoned performance poet, Moe Seager, an American, who lives in Paris, whose poem "Jazz is" struck me as a very clever piece of writing about a genre of music, which I also happen to like. The natural consequence of this is "Barbershop is".

You can read the poem here ...

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