Thursday, September 27, 2007

The March to Convention…

The biannual Pioneer District Convention is coming up next month, and for the first time, I have a quartet that is set on competing. I'm simultaneously overwhelmed by feelings of excitement and panic.

I've been listening to barbershop music, to one degree of interest or another, all of my life – and I do mean ALL of my life. My father was a barbershopper long before I was a twinkle in his eye, so I caught the bug early, though I didn't realize it until about high school. I remember my dad singing "Wait 'Till the sun Shines, Nellie" when I was little and hearing the late 50's-60's SPEBSQSA Championship recordings playing on the hi-fi most weekends. This (along with my Muppet and Disney records, of course) was the soundtrack of my very early years, before I discovered rock, pop and more modern music. By age 12, I was listening to those records on my own and eagerly attempting to dissect the parts to songs sung by quartets like Mark IV, The Buffalo Bills, Town & Country Four, The Confederates, The Air Fours, and others, and singing along.

Now I'm in my own quartet. I've been in one quartet or another since my second week in the Barbershop Harmony Society (formerly SPEBSQSA). Most of these were good quartets to the average listener, but not much to speak of in barbershop circles. Fun, talented guys, but little attention was paid to the details and nuance of the idiom or stylistic interpretation. We did gigs (usually with good pay or at least free food) and received appreciative applause, but never managed to make it onto the contest stage.

Now I finally have a GOOD quartet by barbershop standards. I'm finally with a group of guys that understand the fundamentals of the idiom, have a good amount of experience, and a strong desire to excel. That ought to be enough, right? WRONG!

Barbershop contests are tricky things. Not only do you have to go out there and sing well, but you have to coordinate the wardrobe, agree on interpretation of the songs, organize rehearsal time to maximize the synchronization of the music, get the proper paperwork in order for registration, and above all – choose a repertoire. It's the latter that's been the primary focus for the past couple weeks and, until last night, the primary obstacle.

Contest rules are very particular regarding choice of music. It has to have a certain amount of homophony, the appropriate subject matter, a minimum ratio of dominant seventh chords, a certain pattern of chord progression, and above all, be legally obtained music, obeying all pertinent copyright laws. That's a lot of ducks to get in a row.

We had originally planned on doing "If The Lord Be Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise", which our chorus has done in contest a few times, and an old barbershop standard, "Darkness on the Delta", a familiar tune with a spectacular introduction, and a song we do quite well. After practicing and polishing "Darkness…" and even getting some coaching from one of the top pedagogues in the activity (Dave Ellis, with some additional advice by his wife, Cindy Hansen) on the tune, we found that it doesn't contain enough homophony to be "contestable". Beyond that, we figured we were good enough to have a chance to make it to finals the next night and therefore needed to decide on what to do for our second round of competition, as repeating the same tunes is generally frowned upon.

So now we had to come up with 3 more tunes, most likely 2 ballads and 1 up-tune. We all presented some suggestions and last night we finalized our choices – with a mere 4-5 practices to get our shit together. Yikes.

"If The Lord Be Willin'…" is a song we've been doing for a while, and while there are parts we need to refine, we know the notes, so getting that one ready shouldn't be too tough. "Zippidy Doo-Dah" is a perky tune and not particularly difficult, so once again, that's mostly a matter of coming to consensus on cut-offs, phrasing, and balance. The part that worries me is the ballads.

After much deliberation, we decided on "I'll Be Seeing You" as our primary ballad. It's a familiar tune with a nice intro section and some great chords. The problem with great chords is that they're usually pretty tight. Intonation and vowel shape will be crucial, and as it's a pretty free-flowing song with little by way of a steady tempo, agreeing on a consistent interpretation we can synch up will be time-consuming. We spent about an hour on it last night and it's progressing well, but I worry that we may not have the time to get it as polished as I'd like. Also, it's a song that's been done recently by the District Representatives to International, so we have a standard to live up to there.

Our 2nd ballad is "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans". We've done that one in Chorus, so again, it's familiar, however it has a bridge that modulates a bit weird and the modulation back to the original key is even trickier. The chords are tight and we'll need to block-and-tackle (lingo for go chord-by-chord) to tune them up right.

Thankfully, I have a great group of guys to work with. All 3 of them are willing to put in the extra time outside of rehearsal to polish up these songs. We also have a gig at Applewood Estates in Flint on Saturday from 12:30-3:30 for the Mott Foundation's annual Fall Harvest Festival (plug, plug, plug), so we'll be able to run these songs down a few times, and with a few more rehearsals we can go into contest confident that we won't suck…

…I hope.

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