Will it Shop?

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.

Stepping off the Treadmill…

Despite having left full-time work in academia in 2009, I still experience September as a moment for fresh starts. And this year I have come back from my summer holiday to find the surprising thought that I would like to relinquish the discipline I have maintained for nearly 13 years of publishing a blog post every four or five days.

There are a number of interrelated reasons for this, all to do with how this blog interacts with my lived experience.

It has always been the place where I process discoveries, and clarify to myself what I have learned from my various musical adventures. And I am at a moment when I suddenly find I’m not having the intensity of new experiences to generate the regular need to write. Whilst I am – thankfully! – now getting regular opportunities for in-person musicking with my own chorus, the other groups I'd normally work with as a visiting coach are mostly likewise at the point of restarting live rehearsing, so they’re neither quite yet ready for in-person coaching nor wanting to spend time with me on zoom.

On Privilege and Mediocrity

A chance encounter led me to reflect on a correlation I have noticed periodically over the years between self-satisfaction and mediocrity. There are people who present as plausible and urbane, charming and confident, yet whose actual achievements are rather ordinary.

Their written prose has the rhythm and cadence of authority, but the ideas remain shallow, smoothing over the surface of received opinion rather than offering any penetration of insight. Their musical performances likewise offer the general shape of what a good performance would sound like, but lack depth and nuance, and indeed are often also somewhat inaccurate – lack of attention to detail manifesting in multiple dimensions at once.

It occurs to me that most of the people I have encountered who fit this profile are male, all of them white, and they all speak with accents associated with levels of affluence that afford private education. They all, that is, enjoy multiple levels of social privilege. For the record, I’m generalising from a list of 7 or 8 specific examples here – a small sample in some senses, but enough to allow a pattern to emerge.

Remediation vs Growth

While we’re thinking about balance, here is another example of dynamically-connected opposites we need to keep in equilibrium in the rehearsal process. To what extent should we be focused on remedial work, fixing problems, correcting technique, bringing people up to the standards we currently expect, and to what extent should we be stretching them into new areas of skill development and artistic ambition?

This is a perennial question for the choral director – it brings to mind Jim Clancy’s ‘type 1 and type 2’ rehearsing, but it is particularly salient now as people are gradually returning to live rehearsing after, in some cases, nearly 18 months of no rehearsing, or only being able to meet online. A lot of choirs find themselves out of practice in various ways; there’s a lot more remediation to be done than usual.

In these circumstances, the instinct is to focus on the basics. We need to get the voices connected back with the bodies and the breath, we need to retrain the ears to connect with the rest of the sound and the eyes to connect with conductor gesture. (And, indeed, the conductor needs to get their hands and ears connected back up to make that gesture effective again.)

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