Tags: arrangements, arranging, barbershop, education, harmony, harmony college, LABBS, ladies, ladies' association of british barbershop singers, music, singing, training, white rosettes, women
Harmony College weekend started with a bang – literally – when I walked into a doorstop in the Premier Inn bathroom on the Saturday morning and broke a toe.
Liz [with a grin]: It’s been sent to take your mind off how nervous you are. It’s a GIFT.
It was true I’d spent the previous week trying not to be sick. LABBS Harmony College is a weekend of learning about barbershop, and listening to it and singing it and talking about it and thinking about it. A whole weekend. Sounds blissful, right? But a class called A Cappella Show & Tell was looming large in my nightmares. It was JUST what I needed to move me on with my arranging, except I’d only ever shown my work to people I could trust not to say, ‘Blimey! Well… it’s… um… interesting.’ As the weekend drew closer, I printed out seventy-three different arrangements and decided none of them were actually any good at all.
Liz went off to be awesome on the Directors’ Stream and I was on my own. Luckily, Heather Lane couldn’t have been more supportive and friendly. I was cheered to realise that not every arranger has fourteen music degrees and wanders around murmuring to herself about subdominant progressions using the tonic seventh. (Only some of them.) In fact, arrangers seem to fall into two groups: those who think in terms of the notes on the page, and those who rely on their ears. Each types values (and slightly envies) the skills of the other, and I realised arranging didn’t have to be me on my own with my computer; it could be a collaborative enterprise.
Once this was over, I relaxed and I learnt BAGS of stuff including FINALLY understanding the circle of fifths*, primary harmony** and musical themes*** (all of which you need in order to arrange a song Properly Barbershoppily). We had excellent fun pretending to be Music Category judges, watching DVDs with proper LABBS score sheets in front of us and trying to agree on whether performances were 59s or 61s. I imagined my mouth as a nave, or maybe a piping bag, in the Understanding Resonance class with Alison Thompson, and tried to judge videoed quartets on their singing. We wrote a tag collaboratively under Delyth Knight’s tutelage, with me going ‘Dah dah dah dah’ (singing the chord I wanted) and the rest of the class going ‘C E G Bb’ (#earsversusnotes).
Liz and I ran into utterly fabulous The Mix quartet, and sweet-talked them into letting us watch them warm up for their coaching session. (Sandra: You two are so funny. You’re sitting there, like [makes face of scarily unsmiling slightly stalkerish audience member]. Me: We’re CONCENTRATING.) The coaching-under-glass was fascinating – I was awed by their ability to take a piece of advice from Doug Harrington or Sandi Wright and immediately integrate it seamlessly into their performance.
We cheered the Quartet Stream participants, showing off what they’d learned over the weekend, and sang Bohemian Rhapsody en masse, and Doug taught the whole College a tag: ‘It would be great if we could keep it in D.’ Sandi inspired us to think differently about performance, and our beloved Sally McLean’s session on platforming brought everyone to raucous laughter and tears within about two minutes of each other.
It was the first time I’d been away to a barbershop event without the White Rosettes massive, and it was weird without the formidable wave of #RosetteLove propelling me from one place to another. But it meant we talked to other people. We found out about barbershop dynasties, splits and shenanigans and other types of derring-do up and down the country. We caught up with the Barberettes who’d come to visit us in rehearsal a few weeks ago (‘I can’t believe how hard you guys WORK!’). We drank wine and formed a bass-heavy quartet. (We don’t need you, tenors. No sirree.) We sang with Norwich Harmony and Cheshire Chord Company in the bar, and a friendly bass warbled in my ear so I could try and sing along. Barbershoppers really are a lovely lot.
I came away feeling inspired, and that I had the tools to have a go at stuff. Liz and I drove back up the motorway listening to the Jackson Five and James Brown, playing Spot The Theme***** and working out the chords: ‘One. Five. One. Four. Five. One.’ I’m currently barbershopping The Pink Panther at the rate of about one bar an hour, and working on resonance in my upper range and providing good support for my singing (principally by trying to remember not to bop around with excitement while quartetting). Huge thanks to LABBS and to the Voices in Harmony Foundation, who awarded me a grant to attend Harmony College; you can read my slightly-more-sensible writeup in the upcoming edition of Voicebox magazine.
* I strapped it up and channelled the legendary Jane Ford, who broke her wrist and was back on stage with the Rosettes a couple of days later sporting a black silk sling.
** It’s all about the sevenths. Why does nobody mention the sevenths?
*** Delyth Knight described primary harmony as ‘the points where a rubbish guitarist accompanying herself would be FORCED to strum a different chord.’
**** The theme is the point of the song: lyrical (the focus of the song is the lyrics), rhythmic, harmonic or melodic.
***** Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine is a song about how they are going to sing the song, and therefore in its own theme category. This is possibly why it’s not a popular choice for quartets
****** Many thanks to Helen Ring and Alys Galloway for the delivery of this awesome tome.
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: 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.