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Different voices, distinctively great barbershop

September 23, 2019

Judging community addresses expanded sound for all ensembles

As the Barbershop Harmony Society expands its contest platform to include women’s and mixed harmony ensembles, some common questions arise: How will the apparent “sizes” or ranges of sound generated by different genders be adjudicated by BHS judges? Can women's and mixed harmony choruses and quartets compete fairly alongside men’s groups? After extensive study and discussion among the Singing category, the answer is a resounding YES!

David Mills

Society Contest and Judging Chair David Mills reports that the Singing category spent a great deal of time prior to and during the recent BHS Judge Category School reviewing performances through the lens of its scoring tenets and standards. They determined that a Singing Judge’s analysis is neutral in regards to gender or mix of voices in ensembles.

In short, the Singing category element of Expansion is not related to instrument size or range, neither technically nor practically.

Different groups can sound different, yet be equally great

Much like a trumpet quartet or a trombone ensemble or a mixed brass quintet can offer similarly satisfying sensations of complete sound, yet present a decidedly different presence of breadth or size – vocal ensembles present the same variety of strategies towards success. For example, quartets as different in musical style and vocal sound as Michigan Jake (2001 BHS International Quartet Champion) and The Boston Common (1980) both create the sensation of expansion. (Similarly, compare the Bluegrass Student Union (1978) and Platinum (2000).) As a part of their scoring process, Singing judges don’t “add up audible overtones,” but instead adjudicate the completeness of the sound produced. Therefore, their highest scores are available to any ensemble regardless of the ability to literally discern or count the quantity of the highest frequencies of harmonics.

Consider some of the landmark women’s performers: quartets such as Ambiance, Panache, Showtime, and The Buzz, and choruses such as The Rich-Tones, Scottsdale Chorus, Northern Blend, and the Village Vocal Chords. All create exemplary expansion. Review and analysis by the Singing category showed that, all other things being equal, a women’s quartet that scores 65 in a local contest expands to the same degree as the male quartet that scores a 65.

Good, free singing makes good, free sound

Perceived expansion is achieved when an ensemble utilizes a freely produced tone, proper balance, precise intonation, and unified vowels to increase the awareness of the presence of overtones which results in a feeling that the sum is greater than the parts. This is not a function of power and can be achieved at all volume levels and vocal ranges. Those who are more successful in executing those skills will walk away with a higher score. Period.

How will judges deal with differences between men’s, women’s and mixed harmony groups?

As the Society moves into an era of contests that welcome six different ensemble classifications instead of two, some people may wonder if there will be a dominance of one type of group over the others, or may believe that men’s quartets will necessarily “always expand more.” The C&J community believes that as performers and audiences evolve, they will come to learn and appreciate the nuanced differences across a greater variety of ensemble types. Thus, it would be a temporary effect, if at all.

At no point during Category School did discussions of women’s or mixed harmony performances include the perception of “power.” As the contest system continues to grow and refine over time, it will remain focused more on healthy and quality singing, while steering clear of any formulaic approach to rewarding scores.

If there are additional questions, please feel free to reach out to the C&J leadership by way of contest@barbershop.org.