Tags: 2016, ambassadors of harmony, barbershop, barbershop in germany, bing!, chorus, crossroads, fangirling, gasteig, germany, girls quartet, gq, guests, ladies, munich, music, musikfestival, quartet, white rosettes, women
In March, forty-six* of the marvellous fabulous White Rosettes took to the SKIES to perform at BinG!, the German barbershop convention. It’s a bit like LABBS Convention, which you might remember from last year, if you can imagine it re-set in the Barbican with a televised livestream and Tom Service presenting. Yup, Germans take their barbershop VERY seriously.
We were there as special guests (did I mention we’re the national champions and current European champions?), so there was no pressure. Well, not the competing-at-Convention type of pressure. Just the-judges-are-going-to-give-us-marks-for-mike-warming-to-get-their-hand-in type of pressure. And the singing-in-the-German-Barbican-on-TV-on-the-same-bill-as-American-barbershop-royalty-with-the-German-Tom-Service-presenting type of pressure. We White Rosettes are FINE with this kind of stuff. TOTALLY fine.
We flew out on the Friday and were back on the Sunday, and it was a bit of a whirlwind and I’m no longer entirely sure what happened when, so I’ve organised my observations under headings instead.
- GERMANY. Yes, we were actually ABROAD. You wouldn’t really know it, as our impression of Munich was mostly based on the fifty metre stretch of pavement between the hotel and the concert hall. Clues that we were not in Basingstoke included the availability of at least 173 different types of Ritter Sport in the supermarket and the fact that we couldn’t work out which train tickets we needed, even with the help of a supposedly fluent German speaker (me) [cough].
- WEATHER. Munich in March was balmy and bright. Not so Manchester, where snow and ice necessitated the wheeling-out of the Big Machine to spray hot water and alcohol on to the plane’s wings, and further heavenly dumps prevented the flight behind us (containing several front-row Rosettes) from taking off at all.
- SLEEP. There wasn’t a lot of this. Late to bed, early to rise, Rosettes run mainly on chocolate and adrenaline. Kip opportunities were snatched where possible. After one refreshing nap, Liz and I woke to find we had twenty minutes to pack our stage outfits, get our stage makeup on including false eyelashes, biggify our hair and run over to the concert hall. We made it. (She even forgave me for setting my alarm wrong.)
- SINGING. Of course, this is the point of it all. As well as mike-warming for the chorus competition, we took part in two terrific evening shows alongside barbershop royalty – Ambassadors of Harmony, Crossroads quartet and GQ (Girls Quartet) had all made the trip from the States. The Philharmonie am Gasteig was a marvellous hall to sing in, and we rose to its challenge; we got a standing ovation on the Saturday night. And, of course, we sang wherever else we could manage. Christina taught us a round over lunch; we sang in quartet in a glorious ringing atrium halfway up the stairs in the middle of the afternoon, when nobody was about; the afterglow saw us charging through half the chorus repertoire, learning tags from friendly Ambassadors of Harmony (Them: Do you know Prairie? Us: No. Them: No problem. We’ve got the sheet music on our phones) and singing with anyone who would stand still long enough. It was UTTER bliss.
- FANGIRLING. Did I mention the barbershop royalty? We gushed at Tim Waurick, tenor extraordinaire and teach track impresario (Me: We love TimTracks! Liz: Is it true you don’t use autotune? Tim: No, I don’t. Well, yes, a bit. But no.) I cornered David Wright and asked him for arranging advice. (He told me ALL his tricks and swore me to secrecy.) We introduced ourselves to GQ as representatives of their British fan club. (Us: WE WERE SO EXCITED THAT YOU SANG HOT KNIFE. Ali: Ah, we were supposed to be singing this ballad and right before we went on I said, you guys, I want to sing Hot Knife instead!) I rugby-tackled the lead from Vocal Spectrum and asked them to sing my favourite. We burbled at Dr Jim Henry, who gamely pretended he remembered us. Rasmus from the Ringmasters sat next to us at breakfast. Crikey.
Coming back down to earth after all that was a bit of a trial. I’m not sure why the world doesn’t yet revolve around barbershop; why we don’t switch on the telly and see Suzy Klein introducing the Barbershop Prom, why the Rosettes aren’t packing out the Royal Festival Hall, why people don’t ditch the karaoke machines and sing tags in the pub. If BinG! is anything to go by, it can only be a matter of time.
* Actually, forty-five took to the skies, and Isabel went in the car with our banners, canes and CDs. Dedication.
Tags: barbershop, chorus, humour, ladies, music, singing, voice parts, women
* * Based shamelessly on this post from Classic FM. * *
* * Based shamelessly on this post from Classic FM. * *
Tags: 2015, barbershop, chorus, LABBS, ladies, ladies' association of barbershop singers, music, singing, white rosettes, women
October felt like it was a year long. But finally, we’re here: on the coach, in the dark, on our way to the Ladies’ Association of British Barbershop Singers’ annual Convention, to try to win our fifteenth national championship. It’s uncharacteristically quiet. Most of the White Rosettes aren’t morning people, I’m guessing; those with a penchant for staying up until the small hours singing and guffawing don’t tend to be.
The Rosettes’ in-coach service, Catering To The Elite, do the rounds, offering a variety of drinks and snacks including the very popular Cheese Scones With A Cheese Topping. We perk up a bit. By the time we reach the second service station, we’re spotting chorus buses in the car park and eyeing up women in matching fleeces in the Costa queue. The back few rows even do a bit of singing when we get back on.
The quartet competition’s well under way when we arrive in Bournemouth. The convention centre’s about three minutes’ walk from the hotel; apart from a swift detour to take a beach selfie on the morning we leave, this stretch of tarmac is all I see of the town. It doesn’t matter, because there’s such a lot going on indoors.
We quickly get used to the rhythm: when you can come and go, where to find people, the little audience-participation rituals. Watching quartets is FASCINATING and I miss Liz, who is still en route, because I need to discuss absolutely every aspect of each performance with her RIGHT NOW. Eventually we drag ourselves off to find dinner. The waiting staff are inexplicably grumpy when seventeen of us turn up after we booked a table for nine, but they gradually thaw, finding us extra chairs and flirting hammily with us in that old-school Italian-restaurant way. We serenade them with Orange-Coloured Sky, and get a round of applause.
Saturday dawns bright and mild, but this is no time for skinny-dipping. There’s WORK to get on with. The information sheet, terrifyingly, has ‘Hair and makeup done by 9am’ on it. We do them, and even fit breakfast in, too. There’s time for a long, gentle warm-up, with lots of breaks for good-luck-card-reading and bad jokes and false-eyelash application. We sound terrific. There’s a real sense of ‘Bring it ON!’ in the air.
The chorus competition goes on all day, but it’s not our turn until the middle of the afternoon. So for now there’s a fair amount of sitting around to do, interspersed with checking the time and going for a bit of a walk and making nervous conversation and trying to eat something. It’s a bit like being in labour. But once the clock crawls round to half past one, we’re off. The afternoon is mapped out for us with military precision. 13:52: arrive at dressing room. 14:37: leave dressing room. 14:39: arrive for photos. 14:49: leave photos. We get changed in our little corner of the hall. Michelle checks my makeup. ‘Very nice!’ My neighbours are astounded at this, the first instance in recorded history of a White Rosette not being told they need more blusher.
We move on to photos, and suddenly it all feels very serious. I worry about the photographer: he looks about twelve, and he has to back right up against the curtain to fit us all in. We’re not allowed to sing here, so we speak the words, going through the choreo, beaming for our imaginary audience. Each minute lasts about a week. Jenny holds my hand. Another move, into a warmup room with a ceiling so low I can touch it. We sing. It sounds weird, in here, like hiding in a cupboard behind everyone’s winter coats. Water, loo break, try not to be sick. Then a long corridor, and a wait on tiptoe. We’re outside Lemon Squeezy’s dressing room. LEMON ACTUAL SQUEEZY. I drink some more water, and have a coughing fit. Up and out and onto the risers. At last, we’re behind the curtains. The stage feels tiny. The lights are very bright. Sally is backed right up against the microphone. I remember the story of a quartet member who stepped clean off the stage, one year. The audience are whooping and hollering. Someone looks at me and mouths, ‘OK?’ Yes. Yes, I am. I’m fine. I feel light, and astonishingly confident. It’s like finally leaving for the airport after months planning an epic holiday, knowing it’s too late to go back for anything you’ve forgotten. I am ready.
CONTESTANT NUMBER TWENTY-TWO. FROM LEEDS. UNDER THE DIRECTION OF SALLY McLEAN. THE WHITE ROSETTES!
The curtains open to a surge of cheering and applause. I’m grinning my face off. Sally brings us together, and we sing. I think about Rachel’s advice: ‘Keep your eyes on The Boss. She’ll give you everything you need.’ The ballad is beautiful, transcendent. The uptune is fast and utterly furious. It’s all over in seconds.
In the dressing area, I’m suddenly a mess. (Liz is too. We have a word for this: barbersob.) I can’t stop crying. People ask me if I’m OK. I don’t think I am, and it’s all a bit odd. Despite my normal, everyday state being somewhere west of bonkers on the anxiety scale, I’ve felt eerily calm all day. But the emotion finds its way out, somehow, once you’ve run out of fingers to plug all the little holes in the dam.
Back in the auditorium, there are more choruses, then presentations and speeches. It’s a bit of a blur. There might be bingo, or Vic Reeves singing in the club style; I’ve no idea. Anxiety levels are stratospheric. Hannah and Alys distract me with complicated barbershop family trees. We wait for maybe a decade before the results are announced.
And we did it. We really did it. A fifteenth gold medal. Everyone cries and hugs and texts. I look around for Liz, and she’s there, just in time. Champions. We are champions, too, now.
I’ve never won anything in my life. Well, no, that’s not true: I won my piano age group at the North London Music Festival, aged about nine. It’s been downhill all the way, since then. So this feels marvellous. All the hard work, all the rehearsing and sweating and concentrating and doubting and weeping and practising choreo in our socks in the kitchen. It paid off.
A fairly raucous evening ensues, once we’ve performed IN THE ACTUAL SHOW, which is an utter thrill. We accessorise our outfits with gold medals and enormous grins. There is a lot of singing in the bar. I hit the wall at about two o’clock and roll off to bed; apparently they’re all still going strong at four. They’ve got energy, and heart, and staying power, these White Rosettes. Though it’s predictably quiet on the coach again the next morning.
Come and see us LIVE on 12 December in Harrogate. It’s going to be ace. Until then, you can watch our GOLD MEDAL WINNING performance:
Tags: barbershop, chorus, convention, doubt, fear, ladies, singing, strategies, terror, women
If you watch The Westminster Chorus doing Mardi Gras Parade, there’s a bit near the beginning where the chorus sings, without stopping, moving through different chords, for thirty seconds. I know Farinelli could hold a note for over a minute, but he wasn’t leaping around waving flags and doing somersaults at the same time. Golly.
Of course, now I know that this is mostly smoke and mirrors. You take a breath when you need one. As long as it’s not where Sally says ‘Absolutely NOBODY can take a breath there’, and as long as the other basses don’t all take a breath at the same time, and as long as you don’t LOOK like you’re taking a breath, and as long as we can’t hear you come back in with the note, it’s fine. So I’ve got this figured out, now. Mostly. Breathing while doing choreo has required a few adjustments so I don’t go cross-eyed and faint, but I’m getting there.
It’s the normal, day-to-day, in-and-out type of breathing that’s become problematic. Between hands and feet, I’ve now got enough digits to count the days until Convention. There are even a few left over. Predictably, this is resulting in hyperventilation and the occasional coughing fit.
So for now, my toes are staying firmly in my socks. I’ve got my boots on, too. And my gloves. It’s not that I’m in denial or anything. It’s just that there’s such a lot to worry about.
Seasoned chorus members are telling me I will be terrific, and I mustn’t let the doubt in. As someone who normally approaches challenges with the conviction that everything is bound to go horribly wrong, I have trouble with Positive Thinking. Motivational slogans leave me cold. If people tell me I am fabulous, I laugh and assume they’ve got me mixed up with someone else.
So, as per Sally’s inestimable wisdom, I’m approaching the whole thing like eating an elephant: a bit at a time. Last week, I thought about stage makeup (well, Liz and I drank a fair amount of wine and admired each other’s brushes and decided we needed to wear our fake lashes to rehearsal, just to make sure we could still see Sally from behind them). Today, I’m mostly worrying about vowels, and grins. Tomorrow, I’ll be practising walking backwards in heels.
Sometimes, the stars align themselves just so, and I manage to think about more than one thing at once. At the last rehearsal, I remembered to do something with my face AND my body at the same time. Then Sally gave us some singing points, and it all went to pot again. The tears came, right there on the risers, because I love this so much, and I love the people so much; I can’t bear the thought of letting everyone down.
The chorus, in their usual fashion, are rallying round, giving me bear hugs and tissues, and writing me detailed descriptions of EXACTLY what will happen in the performance, and sharing their mental-pretzel tips on how to turn the terror into a productive force. They say no-one in the little audiences we’ve sung to can tell who the newbies are. I try to believe. I practise beaming at myself in the mirror, telling myself: You’ve worked for this. You deserve to be here. It will be amazing, and you’ll be a part of it.
Eventually, I just decide that it’s easier if I pretend to be someone else. Someone brimming with confidence, skill and natural awesomeness. I visualise the curtains opening to bright lights and two thousand people’s applause. And I channel Beyoncé.
Tags: 2015, barbershop, beginner, choreo, choreography, chorus, distractions, fear, LABBS, ladies, music, rehearsal, singing, terror, white rosettes, women
The White Rosettes, not content with being utterly marvellous musicians and the loveliest people on the planet, are also pretty nippy on their feet. My friend Sarah: “I can’t believe you have to do all those MOVES as well as singing!” Me: “Not moves. CHOREO.”
Choreography is VERY important for barbershop choruses. The 220-page Barbershop Harmony Society Contest And Judging Handbook defines Presentation as ‘communication via the transformation of a song into an entertaining experience for an audience.’ The judging criteria talk about ‘believability’ and singing ‘from the heart’ and creating ‘rapport with the audience’. (You aren’t actually allowed to look at the audience most of the time – glancing away from the director is called ‘eyeballing’ and is a Distraction for the judges, which loses you points.) You create this connection with your audience by a) picking a song you can sing well b) singing it well and c) using your faces and bodies to reinforce and amplify the emotions of the song.
Some songs need delicate handling. You really can bring people to tears by standing and singing, not just beautifully, but like you mean it. But others cry out for a bit of The Treatment. Done well, choreography turns a good performance into a showstopper. Here the Rosettes are, doing Cruella De Vil:
And while you’re here, you should have a look at The Westminster Chorus doing Mardi Gras Parade:
It’s the kind of thing that makes sane people suddenly remember an urgent appointment at the other end of the country. Something about being on the risers warps your judgement, though. Perhaps it’s the altitude. You find yourself going, “Cartwheels? Of course. And I can hide those rabbits up my jumper, no bother.”
It’s the end of August. LABBS Convention, the big competition for British ladies’ barbershop choruses, is a suddenly-very-countable eight weeks away. The songs I was struggling to learn a few weeks ago are now embedded in my brain. I know my bums from my dums, and my oohs from my ohs. In fact, it’s all so automatised that Sally can sing any bit of the lead line and I can come in with the bass, without even thinking. This would be kind of impressive, if I didn’t have so much else to worry about. You know the rubbing-your-stomach-and-patting-your-head thing? Try rubbing your stomach and patting your head while reciting key quotations from Hamlet, converting cake mix ingredients for an 8” round tin into a 9” square one in your head, and doing the Charleston. Backwards. In heels. Ginger Rogers, you didn’t know the half of it.
There’s a palpable sense of ‘Right, then!’ in the air. As someone with a background in dodgy amateur dramatics and terrible orchestral playing, I’ve done a fair bit of rehearsing in my time, but I’ve never experienced anything LIKE the pace and intensity of these White Rosettes rehearsals. It’s terrifying and exhilarating and completely exhausting.
Even with seventy-something of us on the risers, there’s nowhere to hide. Sally sees everything. She throws out little reminders to people between takes: “Hands lower down. Right, not left. It’s up in the air, not in front of your face.” Predictably, she catches my eye just as I smack Hannah round the chops. Damn. Damn. Sally: “Welcome back, everyone who’s been on holiday. I Hope You’ve Had A Nice Time.” She’s kind of joking. We laugh, shiftily. It’s not just me looking a bit scared.
Jane’s answering questions. “The first time, the arm goes down behind the person in front of you. The next time, it goes between the two people in front.” Ah. Okay. I put my arm out and down. If I stretch a tiny bit, I can reach the singers two rows forward. I wonder if this is a Distraction I’ll get marked down for (‘Please address the problem of freakily long limbs on the fourth row’), or whether it can be put to use in some Mr Tickle-themed comedy moment.
Sally’s cracking the whip. “LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME KEEP LOOKING AT ME I DON’T CARE IF YOU FALL OFF THE RISERS DON’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF ME.”
Jane, unperturbed, is adding new bits. “Right, do this, starting on the left. Hmm. Now do it the other way round. Okay, now do it the first way again.” She videos us. I immediately do absolutely everything wrong.
Now we’re going through a different song. YES. I’ve been practising this one at home. BRING IT ON. Right. All good so far. Yes, that’s right. Oh. That move. Oh yeah. Too late. Argh. Sally: “Don’t go on autopilot. NEVER go on autopilot.”
Yup. My mistakes come when I allow myself a nanosecond to think, “I got that RIGHT!” I spiral gloomily into meta-meta-meta-awareness, trying to stop myself worrying about trying to stop myself critiquing my own performance as I go along.
In the break, Karen must have noticed my air of abject terror. “It’ll come together. It always comes together.”
Back at home, I watch tonight’s video. In between absently thinking, “Gosh, I’m so ridiculously tall,” it hits me how Rachel is right when she says every single person matters. We’ve all got our homework to do, and our small but crucial contribution to make. And when we all get it right, it gathers you up and sweeps you along, and it’s completely thrilling to watch.
I run through it in my socks in the kitchen, cracking my head on a light fitting and knocking over a bottle of wine. But the final chord makes me well up every time. Blimey. This is going to be AWESOME.
Tags: barbershop, beginner, chorus, diary, ladies, music, singing, trainee, white rosettes
The Retreat has been and gone, but life is in no way back to normal. The juggernaut of Convention is rumbling towards us, and rehearsals are a whirlwind of dress-fitting, shoe-swapping, lipstick-testing and furtive questioning about whether we really need MAC primer, or will the stuff from B&Q do?
On top of all this, trainee life continues, a learning curve that sometimes feels more like a climbing wall. It is UTTERLY MARVELLOUS being a White Rosettes trainee. Don’t get me wrong. I wake up every day and think, ‘Is it Wednesday yet?’ I stand on the risers, and the pure thrill of the sound lifts me off my feet. I can’t do the warmup exercises where your lips have to go ‘brrrr’ because I’m too busy grinning my face off. But MY, is there a lot of work to do.
Okay, part of this is my fault. You can take traineeship at your own pace. There’s no pressure. Spend a while learning a song, then learn another one. But I want to know them all, right now. At the moment, Sally lifts her arms and names a tune, and I either think ‘Damn!’ or ‘YES! I know this one!’ The sooner it can be all YESes and no DAMNs, the better.
No-one uses sheet music performing barbershop – it’s all done from memory. So, I’m learning repertoire. The cycling podcasts and cheesy salsa on my ipod have been replaced by tracks called things like Orange_Bass_Words. I walk down the street going ‘Dum dum dum dum dum dum BUSINESS!’ and ‘Gah, NO! It’s ‘ba-da, ba-da, da, da!’ Not ‘ba-da, ba-da, ba, ba!’’. Luckily, I live in Hebden Bridge, where this kind of carrying-on is regarded as normal.
It’s harder than you’d think to learn songs without many words. Basses get a lot of dums. And dooms. And ooohs, and aaaahs, and dooohs. In desperation, I write myself a crib sheet for the latest song. It says things like “Doom-bah, doom-bah, doom, (stay down) bah bah bah (up) doo-wah (down) doo-wah”.
At this point, Liz looks over my shoulder and offers me her special baritone highlighters. I gaze at her in awe as she produces eerie strings of perfectly-tuned double-flatted thirds and augmented seconds. At least basses don’t normally have fiendish notes to worry about (although one teach track goes down to a bottom A, which I can manage, but only if I have a tot of whisky first).
Remembering which order the notes go in is a challenge, though, especially as barbershop arrangements specialise in doing the same thing several times in slightly different ways. I have an impressively geeky mental map for Lift Up My Head, which counts off three different kinds of repeats. Sadly, I’ve not managed to replicate this for any other song. I start Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho like a vaguely-familiar car journey, unable to visualise it but daftly optimistic I will remember what to do when I get to each roundabout.
And, unexpectedly, the words give me their own problems. If I know the song, I’m stuffed: one of the warmups is I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, and every time, I JUST manage to stop myself singing ‘Then like West Ham, they fade and die…’ Meanwhile, my brain regards learning song lyrics as the perfect opportunity to have a bit of a laugh. ‘Great big polka-dot sky’ comes out reliably as ‘Great big coconut sky’. ‘The lamb ram sheep horns began to blow, and the trumpets began to sound’? Lamb ham sheep horns. Crumpets. I’m not even kidding. My ten-year-old points out the food theme running through these errors, so maybe I should start having some lunch before I practise.
I used to be a linguist, so part of me is busy going, ‘Ooh, well that’s JOLLY interesting, because ‘coconut’ and ‘polka-dot’ have a lot in common phonologically, and…’ But mostly I’m just trying to find a way of remembering that it’s FLASH! and then WHAM! and then FLASH! again, and not the other way round. And stopping my boys from singing ‘COCONUT SKY!!’ and guffawing. It’s NOT funny, you two. Cut that out. I’ll pop your sprocket money.