notes from a newbie
Musings of a newbie (Alison C)….from audition to convention
I compete at a BARBERSHOP CONVENTION (the final post….)
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.
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.
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.
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.
I try to work out when to breathe (14th October 2015)
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.
It’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.
So, 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 choreography (11th September 2015)
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 face and body 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: the White Rosettes’ 2013 gold medal-winner transforms the chorus into spiders and fearful children and Sally into Cruella de Vil, while the current men’s International Champions, the Westminster Chorus, somersault across the stage, change costumes and produce enormous flags from nowhere in 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, 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, through gritted teeth: “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.
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. OK, 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. Yup. 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, knocking over a bottle of wine and nutting myself on a light fitting. But the final chord makes me well up every time. Blimey. This is going to be AWESOME.
* Other distractions include looking significantly different from everyone else (which is why earrings are provided, and how you put your blusher on is closely monitored), the dreaded Singing Wrong Notes, or going off-piste in the choreography.
I sing on the ACTUAL STAGE and nothing bad happens (20th July 2015)
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.
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, well. 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.
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 terrified 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 (2 July 2015)
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.
OK, 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.
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).
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.
I go to a barbershop retreat and it changes my life (15 June 2015)
Retreat. The word suggests a place of calm and contemplation; of quiet solitude and peaceful reflection. The odd hushed conversation. Maybe a bit of yoga. Line dancing doesn’t normally spring to mind. But the White Rosettes’ retreats are no ordinary retreats.
A few weeks ago I was propelled towards The White Rosettes, the WINNINGEST chorus in British ladies’ barbershop. (Providence: ‘Stop carrying on about how you’d kill to do barbershop, and GO. Go ON. For heavens. This is getting really boring.’) This turned out to be excellent timing, as I just managed to sneak under the wire for the Retreat, where the Rosettes get together for an intensive weekend of singing and learning and chatting and bonding and probably wine.
Our guest educator/ animator/ sorcerer for the weekend wasSteve Jamison. We’re heading towardsLABBS Convention in October (the big annual competition for British ladies’ barbershop choruses and quartets), and Steve’s visit was part of our preparation for this. Industrial espionage is RIFE in barbershop, so there are lots of things I’m not allowed to write about. I won’t be telling you about how we’ve made enormous strides in [REDACTED] or how all the chorus are really excited about [REDACTED] or how Steve is just simply unbelievably amazing at getting us to [REDACTED]. It’s a good job, really, as I’m not sure I can put much of it into words. Steve’s guidance, interpreted and applied by Sally, made us sing entirely differently; it moved us on in ways we’re still struggling to fathom. Steve was the catalyst; Sally was the conduit; and blimey, magic happened. I mean, it really did.
I can’t tell you the intricacies of what we went through, so you’ll have to make do with my scrambled, half-parsed reflections. But I feel like I’ve found my spiritual home. As someone who blesses her smartphone every day because it means I don’t have to talk to anyone in the school playground. I can’t believe I feel so comfortable in this group of people I barely know. Liz says barbershop’s the perfect hobby for a control freak; rehearsals are a heady combination of obsessive attention to detail, and everyone cackling like Sid James. But there’s more to it. These are special people: outgoing enough to want to perform, but lacking ego. Barbershop choruses have no stars *, no soloists; no first and second strings. The aim is the polar opposite: to create a sound where nobody sticks out, where the blend is so seamless that it sounds like one voice. **
There’s something about a shared endeavour. I was struck by how many women came and started conversations with me in my first few weeks, and offered me advice and support, and made me laugh, and made me feel like it was all within my grasp. Competition – which seemed so odd at the beginning – is a straightforward, powerful motivator. Instead of vaguely hoping we’re going to be ready for a concert in a month or two, we’re thinking in terms of scores. Can we improve on last time? This bit’s good, but can it be even better? How do we make the judges drop their pencils altogether?
But it’s also about sharing peak experiences. At one point, singing a ballad, we were trying to apply something new. About two-thirds of the way through, I could suddenly sense the thrill as the whole chorus realised how brilliant we were sounding. The energy was insane. My shoulders started to shake. Sally released the music, barely able to speak. ‘Five minutes. Get out of here.’ Liz and I had a good Barbershop Hug™and a bit of a cry. Other people drifted by, red-eyed. Someone smiled and gave us a tissue. High points like these I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
My latest theory is we are designed to sing barbershop. That’s how it feels. In the same way that discovering your own relaxed, natural running pace makes you feel like you could keep going for ever (Margaret and Liz gave each other ‘What’s she on about?’ looks at this point), barbershop, done properly, simply makes the best of what we have naturally. The whole spectrum of women’s voices is there; you find your place in the chorus according to your natural resonance and range. There are no People Who Have A Voice and people who don’t. You breathe and sing naturally, neutrally; if you don’t feel like you’re trying, you’re doing it right. Your body moves, easily, as you sing. You sing for other people; to captivate and entertain. And those raging harmonics, the overtones and undertones from singing in close harmony, and the buzz in your ears… they’re just Mother Nature showing you what VERY good work you’re doing.
*Apart from Sally, of course, who should be a DBE at the very least by now.
**There’s a whole branch of necromancy around the ‘stacking’ of voices on the risers. Swap singers about, and you can hear the difference immediately. It’s nuts.
And so it begins… (20 May 2015)
Every now and then, it seems like someone is trying to tell you something. Ages ago, I went to a barbershop singing weekend at lovely Benslow Music and came away besotted. But I was pregnant, and having small boys charging about turned out to be a lot more complicated than I was anticipating, and I never did anything about it.
Fast-forward ten years, and a series of almost-chance encounters leads me back. Sarah, my singing teacher,persuades me to go to the women’s singing group by telling me Liz, the leader, is a barbershop freak. I somehow inveigle myself into Liz’s quar-/quin-/sextet, the Remingtons, and spend a few weeks happily stumbling my way through Mr Sandman and Ain’t She Sweet? and feeling chuffed to have met this bunch of lovely people. And then one Wednesday, Liz takes me to a White Rosettes rehearsal.
The legendary White Rosettes.
Well. I’ve never been to any kind of practice and heard something that already sounded so perfect. Even the warmups seem impossibly complex and beautiful: cascading harmonies, perfect pitch shifts. The director gives out soft, rapid-fire points and tips and ideas and explanations. Everyone is alert. There’s no ‘Right, come on everybody, are we ready?’ Everyone just IS. They apply what Sally says immediately. There are words I don’t understand, explanations of how to produce a phrase or a sound. Everyone seems unfazed.
There’s something compelling about ladies’ barbershop. Not only is close-harmony singing the absolute BOMB, but there’s a place for everyone. From deep bass tones to stratospheric high notes, the whole range of women’s voices is there. Each barbershop part has its own special role. Leads carry the tune without overwhelming everyone else; they’re the hook that everything hangs on. Tenors soar above the lead, giving the mix that unmistakable barbershop ring. Baritones are the brains of the operation, weaving around the lead with mad intervals and counterintuitive harmonies. Basses are the corset of the barbershop sound, keeping everyone grounded and supported.
They’re working on a song with fiendish words, cross-cutting syncopated rhythms, tempo shifts from dead-slow to rattling-along and several changes of key. And did I mention the choreography? People strut and act, dance and merge in formation across the stage, like the Red Arrows, while staying pitch-perfect. Um. How do they do that?
And however impressive it looks on video, it’s phenomenal live. This clean sound. The perfect tuning. The ring. The harmonics. The buzzing in your ears. After the break, Sally introduces me, and the whole chorus turns to face me, sitting in my orange plastic seat, and sings to me. ‘You are welcome as the flowers in May…’ It’s like being the receiver in the middle of a satellite dish. The focused sound makes my heart try to leap out of my chest. Tears pour down my face.
Afterwards, we hang around chatting while the trainees do their appraisals (singing songs they’ve been given to learn, to see if they’re ready to move on). Then Sally appears. ‘Come on, then, Alison.’ There’s something of the charismatic leader about Sally: if she’d said, ‘Right, take off all your clothes and jump into the lake,’ I’m pretty sure I would have done it. Thankfully, she is just auditioning me. Wait, what?
OK, I knew this was possible. I’d spent quite a lot of the rehearsal thinking, ‘Could I do this? I couldn’t do this. Damn, I really want to, though. But, argh. I’m not up to it.’
But there I was. OK, then. The audition’s simple: sing up the scale as far as you can, then down as far as you can. Sing Happy Birthday. That’s it. Sally: ‘Well, this is where I do my spiel about how we’re only looking for basses at the moment…’ Everyone laughs. She grins. ‘So, I’d like to welcome you to the White Rosettes as a bass.’
HOLY CRAP. I AM IN THE WHITE ROSETTES.
Sally compliments me on my resonance. I manage to squeak, ‘Thank you.’ I turn round and Liz engulfs me in a hug.
I sit in shock all the way home. What have I done? A large glass of wine, and I’m starting to feel a bit less terrified. That night, I dream that I’m trying to leap aboard a speeding car. By the next morning, I’m grinning like an idiot. I’M IN THE WHITE ROSETTES. I spend the next two days learning When I Lift Up My Head. The 9yo interrupts me singing along with the CD: ‘That’s AMAZING.’ The boyf bounces in: ‘I was listening to you upstairs. You sound great!’
COME ON, WEDNESDAY. COME OOOON.