Friday, March 1, 2019

Visiting Column #9 -- The Performing Arts and the People

OK, I haven't written for a while.  This piece has the kind of title that might get a few more people to read it, than if I titled it more in line with its topic.  But it is going to be a more interesting, or at least curious, read than a more precise titling would have suggested.

The "arts" fall into two broad categories, in one way of slicing it.  There are the -- I don't know, "productive arts", where there is a tangible product as their outcome, like a painting, a book or sculpture. People come to see the product and marvel or jeer, accordingly, but save any decay, the product lasts and is the same thing tomorrow as today.  The "artist" is the creator.

The other would be the performing arts.  That's very distinct for a key reason.  There are then two artists in play; one is the creator (and arranger) of the musical composition or play or whatever; the second is the individual or group that performs the piece.  They can be separated by centuries.  Both need to be good in order for the "art" to come forth; a great cast couldn't save an atrocious play; a top orchestra can't make "Louie, Louie" sound like music, and Beethoven's Fifth as played by a third-grade band will not sound great -- except to the parents, maybe.

For the last 35 years, my performing art of choice has been the barbershop quartet (and, to some extent, the barbershop chorus).  I performed for 25 of those years, and four times was fortunate to be part of an international championship group.  But the organization devoted to its continuation is in serious jeopardy, and losing members -- even as the best of its performers today are as good or better than anyone performing the style has ever been.

That's what I wanted to write about today.  And it's a philosophical discussion I can't solve.

Briefly -- the organization is the Barbershop Harmony Society, long known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America.  It is based in Nashville, and has about 700-800 chapters in the USA and Canada, but is now under 20,000 members.

The art form itself is a style of music with four parts, a lead (melody), one part (tenor) above the melody, a bass singing foundation chord parts, and the baritone singing whatever note is left.  There are distinct rules of harmony at play, which are logical when you hear the music, but complex when written down -- so I won't.

Here's the thing.  Barbershop music is about as schizophrenic as it can get.  When it is done by a champion quartet or chorus or a high-level competitive group, it is mind-boggling how good it is.  Those rules of harmony are made to blend four sounds rapturously when done right.  They produce so many overtones, that you regularly hear five or six harmonically-pure notes per chord amidst a beautiful blended and large sound.  The story of the song is also conveyed sincerely -- that's also important -- and the musical theme is conveyed ideally.

On the other hand, when it is done poorly, as we too often hear, it is painful to listen to.  Men who are not good singers to start with, can make their offerings so unpleasant that your ears bleed, at least figuratively.  You just don't want to hear that, and it does no one any good.

So what is the problem?  Just this.  Virtually all men's barbershop is done under the auspices of the Barbershop Harmony Society, either by a BHS-chapter chorus or BHS-member quartet.  But while the very best of these performances, jaw-dropping as they can be, are spectacular, they are generally the exception.  Those who win contests are fabulous, but not in the majority.

Of those 700-800 chapters out there, the preponderance of its members are of an average age over 55 or 60, beyond the age at which an amateur, untrained voice is at its peak.  These are the performers who, by default, are most often charged with "preserving the style", which is the formal mission of the Society.  And they generally feel that the way to preserve the style is to perform it.

They're right, of course.  At least someone has to perform it in order for those unfamiliar with it to like it enough to want to preserve it.  The problem is that these chapters get together once a week, often just 20 or so men, and spend the night singing -- mostly not very well, and mostly nothing you would regard as entertaining.  And they do shows, too, where they do this in public.

Ultimately, this is a conflict that is diminishing the membership of the Society.  As older members pass away, despite substantial efforts to bring youth into the contest venues, the numbers are not being replaced and the membership declines.

This is not a new phenomenon; we have been dealing with it for several decades.  The reason I am writing about it, and the reason I feel you might be interested in reading about it, is that it is a conflict that has analogous situations in other aspects of the arts -- the people with the responsibility for preserving the art form are singularly incapable of performing it well enough to attract others into sharing the interest, and thus preserving it.

When I was younger and far more active -- I stepped off the stage in 2009 and no longer sing, although I retain my membership -- I strongly advocated for the BHS to stop thinking of itself as a member-service organization, and to start thinking of itself as a performing-arts preservation one.  I suggested that, while we could keep the chapter structure, it no longer be the sine qua non of the organization -- that our primary goal be to have the largest possible population in North America exposed to the best we had to offer.

I still believe that, although there is always the second half of the equation to worry about.  That is, after someone has heard a champion quartet and says "I want more of that", what do we offer them?  What do we want them to do to help preserve the art form?  If the guy whose attention we get, can't really sing too well, what can he really do, and how do we leverage his interest?

That was where we kept running into the performance vs. preservation conflict; the member service organization vs. arts preservation organization conflict.  For decades, small choruses around the USA and Canada would have a show, and maybe bring in a high-quality guest quartet.  A good young singer would happen to be in the audience, and get so excited by the guest quartet that he would show up at the chapter's next Tuesday rehearsal, only to find 22 guys, 21 of them over 60, croaking out sounds not at all reminiscent of what attracted the young man in the first place.  He is never seen again.

I hate to raise all this without having an actual solution.  The best I could suggest would be for the Society to professionalize a half-dozen of its best quartets and send them on tour to every possible high school and college.  To try to overhaul the prevailing stereotyped notion of four guys in striped vests and straw hats not singing that well.  To create a ten-year plan to change the accepted notion of what barbershop is.  After all, people's impression of the "a cappella" style in general (barbershop is one subset of that style) has already been able to change through shows like Sing-Off and the work of a few dedicated individuals such as Deke Sharon.

BHS has opened its doors to female members recently, after being male-only for 80 years.  For the sake of the harmony itself, that's not a great idea (the overtones are somewhat diminished in the female range), and to be sure, I expect this had a lot more to do with legal-adjacent concerns about male-onliness, and more to do with offsetting the declining membership.  Contests at the top level will still be male only for now.

Of course, why I dislike that notion has nothing to do with the music, or genders.  Not much, anyway.

I dislike it because it is taking up a huge chunk of effort, but it has nothing to do with preserving the style and advancing the promotion of the style -- and everything to do with the notion of BHS as a membership organization.  As long as BHS thinks of itself that way, it will continue its long slide into irrelevance, no matter what gender its membership has.

I have the greatest respect for what is often called the "Joe Barbershopper", the guy in the little chapter in a small town who wants to enjoy his hobby on Tuesday nights.  He should be allowed to do so without anyone telling him not to.  I am not.

But while he may be called the "heart of the Society", to celebrate him is antagonistic to the Society's mission -- preserving an art form.  That preservation is going to be done when the nation, hungry for actual talent after years of having celebrity foisted upon them as "singing talent" (coughRodStewartcough), sees what the best of our artists can do with a great arrangement of a song suitable to the style.

Were it up to me, I would start focusing on developing and funding the performances at the highest level, and getting them in front of national audiences, even if a few bucks needs to be moved from some programs that are designed for the local chapter.  Say, this kind of performance, if you're wondering.

What happens after you listen to something like that?  Well, you want more, so you start picking through YouTube, and getting a bit more familiar with the range of music such groups can do.  And you start downloading albums.  That's "preservation by listener."  Only if you're an actual singer do you think about how to perform it, and maybe inquire into it, and maybe then check with the Society.

But if we turn into producers and promoters, as opposed to being overwhelmingly a membership organization, we add the possibility of actually perpetuating the art form as opposed to suppressing it.  If people get to where they hear "barbershop" and think -- well, more like what that video clip looks and sounds like, and less like the stereotype, less like their local 23-man group -- at that point we will have done more for preserving the greatness of the style than we'll have done in the 80 years previously.

That won't go over well internally, and this piece would greatly bother the leadership of the Society if and when they read it.  It would have to bother them; their premise is that we exist as an organization for the membership.  My premise is that we exist to preserve the style of the music.  At the moment, those two goals are in conflict.  And at the moment, the hemorrhaging rolls are indicating that we're failing.

I want to preserve the music by promulgating the best of it.  I want our focus to be getting the best performers and the best performances on stages, on line, into the public consciousness.  In no other form of music is the equivalent of Charlie's garage band put out there and try to portray that as representative of the best, as an entertaining act, as actual talent.

We can do better.

Copyright 2019 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There are over 1,000 posts from Bob at, and after four years of writing a new one daily, he still posts thoughts once in a while as "visiting columns", no longer the "prolific essayist" he was through 2018, but still around.  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at or on Twitter at @rmosutton

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