I go to HARMONY COLLEGE

April 19, 2016 at 11:53 am | Posted in barbershop, barbershop, music | Leave a comment
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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.

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The boiz realised I was nervous and gave me this to wear

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).

the mix quartet HC 2016

The Mix, giving it the beans

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.

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Liz taking notes on how her part goes for the tag. This may be cheating #baritones

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.

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Tools of the trade… Everything I need to know is in this book****** [clears diary] [cracks knuckles]

* 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.

 

What barbershop chorus members are really thinking

March 19, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Posted in barbershop, barbershop, music, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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* * Based shamelessly on this post from Classic FM. * *

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* * Based shamelessly on this post from Classic FM. * *

German barbershop phrasebook

March 2, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Posted in barbershop, music, Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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I’m off to Munich this weekend, with my lovely fabulous barbershop chorus, the White Rosettes. We’re guests at BinG!, the German barbershop convention, and we’ll be singing on stage three times over two days, then finding as many opportunities as possible to sing in stairwells, in corners of the bar and so on. I used to speak fairly good German, so I thought I’d put together a set of useful phrases that my fellow Rosettes could employ over the weekend. In true barbershop style, I’ve provided teach tracks. Mach’s gut!

At the hotel

Do you have room service? Double egg and chips, please.

Haben Sie Zimmerservice? Zweimal Spiegelei mit Pommes, bitte.

I’m having a disco nap and do not wish to be disturbed

Ich mache Schläfchen und möchte nicht gestört werden.

Please could I book an alarm for nine thirty. No, that’s correct. I am English. That’s early.

Ich möchte einen Alarmruf, bitte, um neun Uhr dreissig. Doch, das stimmt. Ich bin Engländerin. Das ist für mich ganz früh.

Making conversation in the audience

They haven’t got enough blusher on

Sie brauchen noch ein bisschen Rouge.

I liked the choreo but the sequins were distracting

Die Choreographie hat mir gefallen. Ich fand die Pailletten verwirrend.

Is that David Wright over there? I’ll be right back

Ist das der David Wright dort drüben? Ich bin gleich wieder da.

At the afterglow

My doctor has expressly forbidden me to drink beer

Mein Arzt hat mir ausdrücklich verboten, Bier zu trinken.

Three gins, please, and easy on the tonic

Dreimal Gin, bitte, und nicht zu viel Tonic.

Shall we sing a tag? Do you know ‘Clouds On Fire’?

Wollen wir einen Tag singen? Kennen Sie ‘Clouds On Fire’?

Are you going to bed already? It’s only four o’clock!

Gehen Sie schon ins Bett? Es ist aber nur vier Uhr!

 

And a good old-fashioned blooper reel. In case you thought this stuff was easy.

I do some ARRANGING

January 21, 2016 at 11:25 am | Posted in barbershop, music | 1 Comment
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A while ago, I took part in the Goldsmith’s Earworm Project. I learned all SORTS of interesting things, including that I have a really good musical memory (I got 94% on their test for this. NINETY-FOUR. You’re DAMN right I’m proud) and that not everybody with an earworm hears the whole song playing from start to finish in their head with the backing band and everything, as if it’s on the radio. Until recently, the application of these niche skills has been restricted to correctly guessing the key for TV theme tunes before they start (nobody thinks this is clever, apart from me) and having this argument with my brother throughout our teens:

One of us: [sings pop song]

The other one: It doesn’t go like that.

I’m gradually getting used to the idea that barbershop provides the answer to all such pressing questions in my life. I’ve spent the last few months learning songs, and grumbling about bass lines, and weeping with admiration at clever arrangements (like GQ doing Samson, below). I start imagining the White Rosettes singing Two Thousand Miles, and a quartet doing Mad About The Boy (with me showing off on the bass melody, of course). Could I arrange something?

I usually give up quickly on anything that involves writing music down, because my theory is stupidly rusty. I have to count the lines to get the notes in the right places, and I’m never confident that what I’ve written is what I actually mean. Then Liz introduces me to MuseScore, which is AWESOME (and free). Put something in, play it back, see if it sounds right, adjust it till it does. Bingo. I’m OFF.

Suddenly, being able to hear all the instruments in my head, and remember exactly how everything goes, are skills that are massively useful. (The fact that I often have two earworms at once also turns out to be a plus when I start mashing up Christmas songs, but more of that another time.)

I don’t understand the technoshizzle of barbershop harmony yet (circle of fifths? Chinese sevenths?), so I start with what I know: pop songs. I tear through a couple of 70s hits and feel terribly pleased with myself. I do a bit of Louis Prima and make myself laugh.

But I also acquire a folderful of half-finished or started-but-not-really-going-anywhere stuff.

A good song turns out to be hard to find. Songs that’ll work well for the chorus need structure: verses and choruses and maybe a bridge or a middle eight, and a definite sense of drama, and a proper musical climax. I’m surprised how many of the songs I love just don’t have any of these. (Either that, or I’m turning into my Dad: ‘You call THIS music?’) Other things that make pop songs unsatisfactory include relying on an instrumental theme (Careless Whisper, unless you think your tenors will pull off saxophone impressions), having a crucially-important bass line (all 70s funk, unless your basses are happy to spend the whole song going ‘dum dum-bah dum, BAOWAH’), or featuring Inappropriate Lyrics (no sex* please, we’re barbershoppers). The range is a problem, too: I get all excited about arranging Things That Dreams Are Made Of until I realise it’s simultaneously too high for the tenors and too low for the basses.

I press on, missing lunchtimes and deadlines. Boyf: Shall we watch the cyclocross? Me: Yes! Well, give me a minute. I just have to do a bit more of this. I’ll be right there. Boys: Is tea nearly ready? Me: Um. It will be when I’ve started it.

It’s like crack. I give up on a difficult passage, then the answer appears to me in the shower and I have to run downstairs, dripping, to see if it works.

I find out that my ear plays tricks on me, not least by filling in harmonies that don’t actually exist in the song. This is excellent, as long as other people agree with me on what they are; less so if they don’t. (Liz, listening to one arrangement: Your chords are lovely, but they’re not the ones I hear. Me: Okay, here are the ones they give online**. Her: Those aren’t right either.)

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These are not the chords I’m looking for. Or are they? Who knows?

In a flash of inspiration, I knock out an arrangement of the Spiderman theme over a weekend. (Me: Listen to this. I’m a GENIUS. Boiz: That’s AMAZING, Mummy.) My lovely quar-/quin-/sextet, the Remingtons, gamely agree to give it a go. They learn a little section with me playing snippets from my computer and trying to sing their parts to them.

The baritone has all the mad accidentals because that’s the Baritone Thing, and because Liz is awesome and can sing ANYTHING. (Her [looking at middle eight]: I thought you said this bit was easier? Me: Um… Her: I’ll get you for this, later.)

Then they sing the first four bars. It’s so exciting I could POP. There is NOTHING like hearing it come to life; the plinky-plonky version on the computer doesn’t prepare you for hearing people’s voices doing your stuff.

The basses get right into going ‘Spi-der, Spi-der-MAN!’, giving it some welly from the sofa. Our tenor’s stream of semitones sounds just as spooky as I’d imagined. The lead does a great job of holding all her posts. I sit there grinning my silly face off. Liz even starts directing it, which is a complete thrill: ‘Everyone needs to come in more quickly here. Let’s decide where we’re going to put the ‘t’ in ‘night’.’ We revoice the final chord. Me: ‘I want a massive great overblown glissando from this chord to that one.’ They do it. It is MAGIC.

* or religion, or politics, or innuendo

** Looking up chords online sounds like the answer, but it makes it slower; I have to look up all the notes that make up a Dm7 and write them down, then check that I have them all in the chord, then give them all to different parts because it sounds wrong, then add some other notes because it’s too boring. I go back to doing it by ear. (Chords picture is from this blog. I can’t work out how to link to it from the picture any more. Damn you, WordPress.)

 

I compete at a BARBERSHOP CONVENTION

December 1, 2015 at 5:23 pm | Posted in barbershop, barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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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.

We'll have one of these, next year. BUS OF CHAMPIONS

We’ll have one of these, next year. BUS OF CHAMPIONS

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.

Barberbuddies

Barberbuddies

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.

Marvellous fabulous White Rosettes on the Convention stage

Marvellous fabulous White Rosettes on the Convention stage

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.

Beach selfie feat. GOLD MEDAL

Beach selfie feat. GOLD MEDAL

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:

 

I try to work out when to breathe

October 14, 2015 at 11:57 am | Posted in barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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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.

feel the fearIt’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.

SoScreenshot (196), 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.

I learn some CHOREO

September 12, 2015 at 5:37 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | Leave a comment
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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.

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NOT choreo, just a bit of fun in a warm-up. Spot the Distractions. Yup, that would be me

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.

labbs convention hall

Convention. IT IS COMING

I sing on the ACTUAL STAGE and nothing bad happens

July 20, 2015 at 11:03 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | Leave a comment
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At two-thirty, I was already bopping around the kitchen. The White Rosettes don’t perform in public that often, and this was a rare chance to show off: my first sing-out. (In barbershop, we don’t call them ‘concerts’. Pay attention at the back.) I’d been busy learning repertoire so I could hold my own in the second half, when the trainees were going on, and Caroline had lent me her swishy dress and heels, so I looked the part.

I applied foundation for the first time in about twenty years, packed sandwiches and three pairs of tights and put my Chorus Scarf on. Margaret picked me up and I made polite conversation with her friends and tried to act nonchalant.

We arrived at Trinity Church in loads of time, ambushing the lovely tea ladies, who weren’t expecting us until later. (They let us in anyway.) Sharon gave the trainees some makeup direction (‘Slap on loads of blusher, and then someone’ll come round and tell you to put some more on’) and we pouted at the mirror in the ladies’ and sang each other’s parts and decided we really needed to move the audience in there, as the acoustic was so smashing.

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Giving it some beans in rehearsal

Sally summoned us to the stage for a warmup, and we sang Joshua and Shine and a couple of other things with a PROPER PHOTOGRAPHER wobbling on a chair and a few good-natured people clapping encouragingly. A chap kindly moved some chairs so Sally could direct without giving herself a dead arm. There was some last-minute stack rearrangement; I found myself in a cosy little bass enclave with Jane, Kate, Emma and Irene around me. Then everyone raced off to change.

Well, the White Rosettes certainly scrub up nicely. It was a real thrill to see everyone in their sparkly frocks. The trainees snuck into the back of the hall to watch. And, crikey. It sounded amazing. I tried my best not to cry in You Don’t Know Me, what with having mascara on and everything, but no luck. Emma shushed me for shouting WOO! at the end of the first half. I couldn’t help myself. I was just thinking, ‘We should be on the TELLY doing this!’

Trainee excitement levels got cranked right up to 11 in the interval, as we FINALLY got to put our velvet dresses on and struggle with our tights and tiptoe around in our high heels. Last-minute lipgloss application and a bit of jumping up and down, and we were ready.

white rosettes trainees

Trainees are GO

And it was utterly marvellous. You might not guess from my usual bouncing-around-being-irritating demeanour, but I always used to have sickening performance anxiety, and I was secretly petrified it was still festering away in my unconscious, like something forgotten at the back of the fridge. But I felt great. My voice was steady; I didn’t do anything stupid; I couldn’t stop smiling. Okay, I’ll admit that when Sally came to sing right next to me, I spent three terrified minutes thinking DON’T MUCK IT UP. DON’T MUCK IT UP. SHE CAN HEAR YOU. But the rest of it was brilliant. I had an absolute ball.

The audience loved us, too. I’m not surprised. We do put on a terrific show. There were custom song introductions from various members of the chorus, and a Barbershop Demystifier, and Sally got the whole audience singing in four parts, and tried to recruit most of the front row. We even made a couple of ladies cry. YES! (Barbershop’s so cruel.)

I think I managed to talk sensibly on the way home. It’s all a bit of a blur. I grinned non-stop for the next two days. I felt cradled by this beautiful chorus, supported and encouraged and cheered on. So much generosity, so much heart. And if you have that around you, it’s impossible not to sing it back out.

I learn some songs

July 9, 2015 at 9:39 am | Posted in barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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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.

2 OLD MEN ON MUPPET SHOW

DON’T. SING. WRONG. NOTES.

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).

typical baritone part

Typical baritone line

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.

crumpets

Joshua fit the battle of… oooh

I do some stealth barbershop

July 2, 2015 at 7:16 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | Leave a comment
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boater

Have boater, will barbershop

Well, all right. Donning red jackets and boaters isn’t exactly inconspicuous. The ‘stealth’ aspect was because we were barberbombing the Street Sundae, when a glorious riot of street performers takes over Hebden Bridge as part of the annual Arts Festival. An Arts Festival volunteer approached us with a clipboard at one point. I feared a ticking-off, but she just said, ‘If you’d let us know, we’d’ve put you on the programme!’ Oops. We did mean to. Sorry.

My fellow Remingtons and I had met an hour or so earlier to drink tea and run through bits of repertoire. We ended up with a short list of songs that a) we all knew b) we could do without the sheet music and c) we felt were appropriate in style. (Liz: We can’t do that one, it’s not barbershop. Chrissie: I don’t think anyone’s going to wave the Trades Descriptions Act at us. Me: MR SANDMAN! Everyone else: No. NO*.)

Then we headed out (via the chippy) to scope out potential sites. We started off under the clock opposite the Town Hall. It was a bit windy, and our advertising sign (The Remingtons! Hebden’s very own Ladies’ Barbershop Sextet!) kept blowing over, but a few people stopped to listen, and someone tried to get us to come and sing at his event for free, which was encouraging. Excitingly, the Arts Festival volunteer bounced up and said she had an ACTUAL SLOT for us in the PROPER PROGRAMME at the Marina, as someone had dropped out. Gosh! A quick move into the Town Hall itself, where we serenaded the coffee-drinkers on the terrace with Ain’t She Sweet? and Don’t Fence Me In. We were getting into our stride now, adding choreo to Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue and hamming it up outrageously in Wait ‘Til The Sun Shines, Nellie.

On to the Marina, via the Wavy Steps where we did a quick couple of numbers before being moved along politely by another volunteer who was waiting for a proper act to show up. The Marina was occupied by a bluegrass group who looked very settled. The volunteer came up to us again: ‘I’m really sorry, but they’re running over.’ Hmm. It was VERY windy, and there was nothing to reflect the sound. They were amplified, and we (of course) are not, because a capella, so we decided to cut our losses and ambled off to the park.

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Boyf: You’re just like, ‘Ooh! Someone with a CAMERA!’ Me: I was ENGAGING the AUDIENCE

This, our last barberbomb of the day, was the most successful. At the end of the canal bridge, with lots of stone to reflect the sound and trees to cut the wind, we could hear ourselves, and so could our little audience (which included the boyf, our boiz, Liz’s husband and their son, a chap with a grin, a woman who recorded some of it on her phone, several dogs and toddlers and a couple of mountain bikers). And you know what? We didn’t sound at all bad. Some audience reactions:

10yo: Mummy, I LOVED it! That was AMAZING.

7yo: Can we go to the playground yet?

Boyf: There are some good voices in your group.

Liz’s husband: It sounded crisper when there were only four of you.

Woman I know from school: That was LOVELY! I didn’t know you sang! It was beautiful!

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N.B. We’re available for weddings, private functions, parties in wine bars, etc. Go on. Give us a call.

* This is because all the parts are fiendishly difficult apart from the lead, which is me.

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