Retaining musical work through story

This weekend I had the honor of coaching the Mount Baker Toppers at their annual retreat, to help them prepare for the upcoming Evergreen District contest.  They are a pretty good mid-B level group, singing pretty much consistently in tune and in good quality.

One big problem the Toppers and most large amateur singing groups face is musical retention – how can we hang on to what we learn every week, so we can keep building on that ever-growing foundation of skill? Most groups struggle with this, and that makes sense, because most coaching I’ve seen boils down to giving dozens of arbitrary instructions like:

  • Don’t forget to turn that diphthong
  • Do this phrase more softly
  • A little higher on that fifth, baritones!

Based on how effective this approach is most of the time, you may as well be asking people to memorize the first 100 digits of pi. It’s in one ear and out the other.

What does seem to work better is to give the singers the emotional context of the piece, and the basic story i.e. who are you, who are you talking to and why. People are great at remembering stories, and with that in place they’ve got a framework to “hang” all those technical instructions onto, very much like Sherlock Holmes’ “mind palace” and similar real-world tricks.

So in the case of the Toppers this past weekend, what made a huge difference for them was focusing on the story and purpose of the music, and how each major section moved the story forward. For example, one song was the Aaron Dale arrangement of “Love Me.” (Here’s OC Times singing the same song.) At first, they had the whole thing conceived as a sad song. After all it does start with “my broken heart” and a lot of the language, on the surface, is whiney. A more interesting and effective plan for this song is to make it about flirting and seduction, and each form element has lyrics that fit that plan well. (The seduction theme should have been obvious, because OC Times.)

First, who are you: I’m a young guy at a party.
Second, who are you talking to: An woman who has caught my eye
Third, what’s your purpose: I’m flirting with her!

Right away that’s going to be more fun to sing than “I’m whining because she’s mean.”

Here are some example lyrics, and the subtext we gave them:

  • “My broken heart, you tore it apart” – we’re not complaining, we’re being flirty and sexy, right from the edge
  • “Treat me like a fool .. but love me” – extreme lyrics probably shouldn’t be taken literally! Better to think of them as playful.
  • “If you ever go, I’ll be lonely” – you’re the only one for me (probably not true, but fun to say)
  • “I will beg and steal just to feel your heart beating next to mine” – again, extreme words, I think we’re being playful

Yes, the story is repetitive, but this is a rhythm song so you shouldn’t expect Shakespeare, nor do you need it. Complex lyrics in a rhythm song often lead to the dreaded theme confusion trap.

Like most well-constructed songs, the main ideas in the story follow the form of the music. This is handy because the human brain can generally handle 7-plus-or-minus-2 things at once, and often the number of form elements will be in that range. And once the guys can recognize the form elements, they can use that as another easy way to stay in the story, or to jump back into it if they got distracted.

Once the story was in place, the song was a thousand percent more fun to sing and to hear. We worked mostly on two songs all weekend, but instead of leaving the retreat burned out and exhausted, I sensed that everyone left with a new level of energy and confidence. Getting beaten up by a constant barrage of technical instructions and frustration is soul-sucking. Working on the same things through story is energizing.

Honestly, it’s also far more efficient. The easiest instruction is the one you don’t have to give, and in my experience every time a group gets a clear sense of the story behind a piece of music, they do a thousand things right without having to be told. It’s almost like magic! Treat the music holistically and the singers like musicians, and musical things start to happen.

The chorus leadership is absolutely pumped about changing their approach to rehearsals, to incorporate some of these concepts. Like many choruses, over the years they’ve banged their collective heads against the wall trying to be better through technical instruction, and many members have left in frustration. Ultimately if they can keep it fun and make great music, they’ll keep their members and grow.

Becoming a Candidate Music Judge


So went the chant in the judge meeting room as the eight Music judge candidates lined up to accept their red badges. But I can hardly think of a more touching sign of respect.

All the new candidates, whether in Music, Performance, Singing, and of course Contest Administrators, had a very intense few days at Belmont University in Nashville, because the Society relies on judges to be great at a few important things, for example scoring contests accurately. That’s why it takes three years to get certified! Just getting to Candidate school in the first place means the higher-ups think you have what it takes.

If you’re not familiar with barbershop judging, this is going to seem nuts to you, I guarantee it. To even get considered as a candidate Music judge, you have to submit two of your own contest arrangements, create an arrangement of a standard song, pass two dictation tests…

Why the dictation tests, you might ask? Music judges are the guardians of the barbershop style, so to be an effective BHS music judge you must be able to tell in real time whether an arrangement is following the rules of barbershop. For a start, you have to be able to tell whether the chords are “in the vocabulary” and whether the song has sufficient “circle of fifths” movement. Folk songs? No go. Jazz songs? Again, probably not. And training judges to be good at this is critically important, because it means singing new songs in contest is safe! If the music judges couldn’t do this in real time, the only safe thing for a contestant to do would be to sing a previously well-known safe song. Can you imagine how repetitive that would make the contests? Yeech.

Anyway once you’ve passed the filters, you get invited to Candidate school. That’s basically three intense days of training, including many hours of watching contest videos, coming up with scores, and comparing the scores with each other and with the accepted “reference score” that was established by highly trained judges.

Our class started off, predictably, with scores all over the map on Friday but by Sunday we were mostly all in agreement with each other, and the reference scores. That’s good, because contestants get really upset if everyone has them around a 72 and you gave them a 58! We owe them consistent, correct scores, and the whole system is set up to get as close to that goal as humanly possible.

Thanks for reading. More on this topic later!

The Mystery of MUS

Let’s just admit it. Not one person in a million really understands the music category. (If I’ve already lost you – stop reading now. This post is not for you.)

The secrets of MUS are impenetrable to the typical barbershop singer, yet they are hiding in plain sight. I double-dare you to read it. The Music Category description starts on page 43 and skulks its way to page 58.  It is at once absolutely specific and full of detail, and reveals nothing. For most of us, slogging through that text is like having a detailed street map, but with no “you are here” dot, and no arrow pointing North. And all the street names are in Italian. You stay lost.

If you’re a barbershop competitor, perhaps you’ve had this experience at your post-contest evaluation session with the MUS judge. You walk into a small hotel room. A man with thick glasses shakes your hand and pulls out his judging sheets. What will he talk about? Your singing skills? Your musicianship? Your song choices? Dominant 7ths? The bloody circle of fifths?? It’s impossible to say. I heard someone call it “The God Category” because you can say absolutely anything. I mean really, who’s going to call you out?

But folks, I’m sorry to have you tell you this, but we need to know. We need to know. If we care about our art form, our audience, our music or (frankly) our scores, we NEED to know. So, what shall we do?

As it turns out, my life plan involves becoming one of those nerdy men, those acolytes of the arcane truths that make barbershop work. In reality they are our brain trust, the keepers of the style. And as our best arrangers, they are the ones who drive us forward, simultaneously honoring our roots. I can think of no more challenging and virtuous, musical path, and I will take that three-year journey!

And my plan is to drop breadcrumbs on the way, here on this blog, so other brave souls can follow without too much personal risk. Enjoy!