Two Philosophies About Barbershop Singing—And Their Outcomes

The following article is reproduced from my Pelham School website.  While Sing, Montana! does not sing only Barbershop, this article is still very relevant to what we’re doing.

Barbershop singing can be great fun for singers of many skill levels. Here are just a few of the more obvious reasons for that:

  • Singing is both fun and therapeutic.
  • Songs themselves are fun.
  • It’s great to have something regular to do–to be regularly active.
  • It’s rewarding to have some place to “belong”.
  • It’s fun to hear skilled musicians perform good arrangements.
  • There’s some level of importance to preserving an historic art form that doesn’t get loads of popular support.
  • There’s a certain thrill that comes from public performance.

In my experience, these are some of the main reasons that keep most Barbershoppers involved. Interestingly, however, being involved and being excellent don’t necessarily go together. There are a great many Barbershoppers throughout the world, comprising lots and lots of choruses and a bajillion quartets. (OK, that’s not an exact number for the quartets!) Some of these are so excellent that it takes a real expert to discern what they might do better. Then there are some that are on that track, but simply haven’t been on it long enough to achieve the level of excellence that they will eventually achieve. But then there are the rest, who never seem to near that level of excellence, even after decades of activity.

My question is this: Why the difference? Why do some groups advance obviously toward excellence, or even attain it, while other groups never do? Obviously, there are some practical considerations. For example:

  1. A group may simply not have access to the training it needs to excel.
  2. A group, or some significant part of its membership, may simply not have the time required to excel.

Indeed, some of the people who are the most “natural” at Barbershop are quite busy doing other things. For years, I’ve summed this up this way: It’s hard to find the talent with the time.

I’m going to suggest, however, that there’s more to it than the practical consideration of talent and time. I’m going to suggest that the difference often ultimately comes down a single point of philosophy, and that there are two basic schools of thought in play. These two schools that I’m going to detail may not exactly match each individual ensemble out there, yet they are probably close enough of a match to be useful to us in understanding how things work in the Barbershop world.

So let’s me begin with my conclusion, and then I’ll spell it out for you afterward:

One group is in it for the items on the list above, and most obviously for fun and fellowship. Meanwhile, the other group generally enjoys those same things, but is most obviously concerned with the particular fun and fellowship that comes from striving together for musical excellence. To the one group, the fun is steered by the need for ease, and to the other, it’s driven by the thrill of mastery. That is, for the first, it’s not fun anymore if it’s not easy. And for the second, it’s not fun anymore if it’s not excellent.

Now let me stop right here and say that I don’t consider either of these two philosophies to be “wrong”. They are different, to be sure, but neither is morally or factually wrong. I have long recognized that I simply lack the means to inspire some singers to go after excellence and mastery. In my mind, it often brings up this quotation (which I will tell you about if you ask me): “I see that I have failed to impress upon you the greatness of the cause that I represent.”

It would be easy to get on a high horse about it, and to look down on those who don’t get excited about my vision for excellence and mastery, but the sobering reality of the matter is that different things drive different people, and on some matters like this one, there’s just no right and wrong about it.

I was curious to see whether the major Barbershop-promoting societies address these paradigms in their mission statements. Here’s what I found:

“The Barbershop Harmony Society brings men together in harmony and fellowship to enrich lives through singing.”
Barbershop Harmony Society Mission Statement (for Men)

“…committed to advancing the musical art form of barbershop harmony through education, competition and performance.”
Sweet Adelines International (for Women)

“… to empower all women through education, friendship and a cappella singing in the barbershop style.”
Harmony, Inc. (for Women)

While all three make mention of things like excellence and mastery on their websites, none of them have written it into their mission statements as being necessary paradigms for all the members. It appears, therefore, to be an optional matter for the various chapters and quartets to adopt (or not) at their own discretion. And again, I have no problem with that whatsoever. There is, however, a huge difference in the outcomes from one chorus or quartet to another, and I believe that that difference comes down to whether a group has this optional philosophy of mastery/excellence or not.

So, what am I talking about?

First of all, I should make it clear that there’s a world of difference between mentioning excellence and mastery in a mission statement, and actually having that paradigm driving an ensemble. It all comes down to whether the individuals authentically share that paradigm or not.

We’ve all heard the old axiom, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, and it comes as little surprise to us that this question of just how good we plan to be can be divisive to an ensemble. It’s just as natural a consideration as whether an ensemble will wear traditional uniforms or modern ones, whether it will do choreography or not, or whether it will ever perform a piece in another musical style than Barbershop. So, rather than run from the difficult question in hope that it won’t come up very often, I think we’re probably better-off to face it head-on, defining it for what it is and then moving forward with eyes wide open.

Understanding The Difference

It’s important that we understand the differences between those who hold to these two competing ideas about excellence in Barbershop. So let’s get to the bottom of this by talking about things like personality, psychology, philosophy, and paradigms. And I’ll start, of course, with volleyball. That’s right, I wrote, “volleyball”. I can sum all this up in a three-paragraph metaphor about volleyball players:

Susan loves volleyball. So does Terry. Susan learned it in P.E. at school, and then she mastered it while on the school’s JV and Varsity teams. Terry learned it at a summer church camp and looks forward to playing whenever he has an opportunity. Susan knows all the rules and is well trained in the strategies. There’s a standard skill set in volleyball, and she has mastered nearly all of it. It has been very hard work for her, yet she finds it very rewarding. Her teams have won state championships frequently.

Meanwhile, Terry loves volleyball, too. It’s a great chance to relax and get some sun–as well as to have fun with the others at the summer camp. They don’t fuss too much with the rules, so they do lots of things that would be penalized in official play, but they still have fun with it. They’re not very good at it, but that’s OK with them; they don’t take it too seriously, and they’ve learned to laugh at their mistakes.

Terry invited Susan to come out one Saturday and play volleyball with his group. They enjoyed having Susan there–especially the ones on whose team she played. (They won!) She saw their lack of knowledge, skill, and effort, and she kept quiet about it. She did not enjoy it very much, and has no desire to come back. To her, it’s just not the same game as what she has come to love. Meanwhile, to Terry’s bunch, Susan’s standard volleyball skill set seems too complicated to learn, and they’re just not interested in playing by (all) the rules. They sometimes have to argue over just which of the rules they want to play by, but still, they generally have fun.

So there’s my metaphor. Do you get it? Do you see how this translates into Barbershop singing? Do Susan or Terry remind you of real people that you know? Do you understand how they just wouldn’t be interested in each other’s version of volleyball?

Both can love volleyball, and both can think it’s a great use of their time. Both can even want to promote volleyball to the world. But they have fundamental differences in how they think about it, what they value about it, and how they understand it. Again, much of their interest in it overlaps, but there’s a certain kernel of motivation (excellence/mastery) held by the one camp that is not held by the other.

The Expected Outcomes

What will be the difference in outcomes between a Barbershop chorus or quartet that holds this paradigm of excellence and mastery and one that does not? Will one be more effective at fulfilling its mission statement than is the other?

Let’s disassociate ourselves from the Barbershop question for a moment, in order to get a really objective look at its principles. We can do this by turning back to our volleyball metaphor:

  1. Which team, Susan’s or Terry’s, is more apt to become well-known?
  2. Which team is more apt to produce volleyball coaches who can, in turn, build other championship teams?
  3. Which team makes the sport of volleyball look more excellent?
  4. Which team more fully understands the intricacies of the sport?
  5. Which will be more effective at promoting volleyball?
  6. On which team are the players more apt to achieve meaningful personal growth as a result of participating?
  7. Which team’s players will be more apt thirty years later to look back on this experience as one of the highlights of their lives?

I’m quite willing to acknowledge that there may be a little wiggle room with some of these questions, but it’s hard for to me to imagine any audience that wouldn’t give the edge to Susan’s excellent team on practically every question above. For Terry, volleyball is mostly a pastime. But when Susan plays or practices, she is not only enjoying herself, but is busy building, learning, perfecting, and synergizing with others with a view toward some very specific goals. In my view, the difference between these two approaches to volleyball is like the difference between night and day.

And so it goes with Barbershop. A great many Barbershoppers have plenty of fun passing the time without striving for Barbershop excellence. I don’t begrudge them that at all. But that’s not my game. I’m in it for the thrill of working the skills into an excellent artistic expression. For me, I don’t just want to buy a balloon; I’m willing to go to the trouble of blowing it up. I don’t just want to have a really cool archery set in the closet; I want to go to the trouble of mastering the art of archery. I don’t just want an excellent pipe organ; I want to play it excellently. And so with the excellent art form of Barbershop.

A pipe organist gets to play a masterfully-built organ because somebody else already built it, installed it, and tuned it to perfection. A Barbershopper, however, comes together with others as if they were each living pipes from an organ. Unlike the pipe organ’s pipes, however, the Barbershopper doesn’t start out his or her musical experience by having been expertly created by a master craftsman. No, he or she decides for himself just how masterful will be his or her level of accomplishment in the art, and then, how and how much to work toward that end.

It’s that decision—that wonderful and free exercise of personal choice—that ultimately either blows an audience away with excellence, or leaves them “underwhelmed”, as the funny pun goes. And it’s not just the decision of the one singer that matters, but the decisions of all of them. Just one sour pipe on a pipe organ ruins the performance, just as one cockroach ruins an entire bowl of cherries. So what’s at stake here is whether an ensemble—whether it has four members or four hundred—is going to have this particular quality:

that every member in it is interested in and committed to learning the entire standard skill set for the art form they have chosen to practice.

In the world of pipe organs, it’s quite simple: Nobody wants an organ with one pipe that plays out of tune, or that has an unsavory tone. But in Barbershop, many seem to be more forgiving when it comes to quality–as if a very high level of performance were not really attainable. Ah, but it is!

What About The Numbers?

Have you ever seen a really large Barbershop chorus that’s not excellent in its singing? Think about it. Think about the biggest groups you see on YouTube, like The Vocal Majority, Ambassadors of Harmony, and Westminster Chorus. Have you ever seen a chorus that big but that is not excellent in its performances? Interestingly, choruses of from both the fun/fellowship or mastery/excellence paradigms have visions of being large in number, yet only the latter seem ever to attain to it. And if we’ll listen to reality, this is probably telling us something: Excellence is simply more attractive to most people than is mediocrity.

But alas! Excellence takes far more effort, and it cannot be achieved in an instant. This means that the level of investment necessary to achieve it is exceedingly higher than the level needed simply to get a chorus together.

Excellence can also take its toll on an existing chorus that has never really settled the question. It stands to divide an existing group that just can’t seem to get to the next level, just as surely as if your ensemble were trying to decide whether to officially associate itself with Ford or Chevy, Falcons or Cowboys, Republicans or Democrats, or Catholics or Baptists. The fact of the matter is that certain differences in the way people think make it very hard, or even impossible, to work together excellently and efficiently on certain types of projects. And Barbershop is no exception. Sure, you can try to make a go of it without settling the question of excellence—and many choruses do—but when two or more competing paradigms are in play in an ensemble, it’s just going to lead to competition. Maybe not mean-spirited competition, mind you, but a competition for the attention, goals, and activities of the group.

This problem of competing paradigms is one of the tough realities of trying to do anything with other people, and Barbershop music is no exception. So let’s let this reality be real, and let’s recognize it for what it is. In my view, there’s no shame when we disagree on the level of excellence at which an ensemble wants to aim. But I must say that I’ve seen lots of groups over the years that are more or less fooling themselves about the prospects of getting anywhere in a chorus that is divided over this issue. Just like in the volleyball summer camp, the easy-minded crowd never seems to mind having the excellence-minded singers aboard, but the excellence-minded singers never seem to get what they want out of the deal unless they are fortunate enough to find a place in a quartet of like-minded singers who can help offer them some degree of escape from the overall disagreement in the chorus.

If you can’t tell it already, I fall in the camp of the excellence/mastery paradigm. It’s much harder to get things going in this camp because it’s much harder to find (at least) four singers who are personally interested in learning the full standard skill set for Barbershop singing than it is to find four who just want to sing. My goal in my Montana Barbershop Singing Workshops is to facilitate those singers who share the excellence/mastery paradigm, helping them to master all the skills in the standard skill set. They’ll still have to with the dynamics of group paradigms however they wish, but at least they’ll have a source for learning those skills for themselves. And if I can help people with that, I’d say that’s a very rewarding use of my time!

In my next two articles, I’ll be writing about the standard skill set for Barbershop singing and some particular psychological traits that tend to be present in high-quality Barbershoppers.


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