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Expanding BHS Contests: Two Perspectives

The Contest Expansion Proposal is a popular discussion item this month -- in official leadership meetings, with BHS Board and staff, among attendees at fall conventions, in rehearsal rooms all over the Society, and in spirited debate online.

Long-time BHS members David Wright and Shane Scott recently took to social media to share their views on the Contest Expansion Proposal. Their thoughtful writings provide many points to consider, so we've asked for permission to share their thoughts on our blog.

Guest contributor Shane Scott writes:

“Men’s, women’s, and mixed ensembles are each a valued part of barbershop that should be celebrated and preserved with its own contest.”

I am grateful for the opportunity to explain why I believe that the best path toward the goal of Everyone in Harmony (EIH) is maintaining separate men’s, women’s, and mixed competitions at the BHS international convention.

Shane Scott

Our judges can certainly judge men’s, women’s, and mixed ensembles - even though those ensembles are very different - just as they can judge quartets and choruses, which are also very different. Nevertheless, we maintain separate contests for quartets and choruses - ensembles that follow the same rules, compete in the same categories, and are judged by the same panels. Why, then, have separate contests for quartets and choruses? Is it because of prejudice against either? To the contrary. Quartets and choruses are distinct and valued parts of barbershop, and therefore each deserves its own contest. Men’s, women’s, and mixed ensembles are also unique. Each is a distinct and valued part of barbershop that should be celebrated and preserved with its own contest.

From the beginning of the EIH initiative, the BHS has indicated it would add to and not subtract from what we have cherished as a men’s organization. In the words of the initial roll-out video: “In addition to our current men’s organization, we’re going to support a women’s organization and a mixed barbershop organization.” This general commitment was followed by an explicit commitment on the Society’s own FAQ page regarding contests: “The Barbershop Harmony Society will continue to support men’s choruses and offer contests for all-male quartets and choruses.”

A single contest for all classifications is inconsistent with the promise to support three separate organizations, and it would flatly contradict the commitment to offer contests for all-male ensembles. This option severely impinges on this experience, diluting the celebration of the men’s, women’s, and mixed competitions by ultimately pitting each of these groups against one another, reducing EIH to a zero-sum game. And, combining these contests would truncate the total number of mixed, women’s, and men’s competitors, ironically leading to fewer people in harmony.

Maintaining men’s, women’s, and mixed competitions demonstrates fidelity to the BHS commitment to add and not subtract. It also reassures those of us who desire a men’s-only barbershop contest experience at International that this is a tradition worthy of celebration and preservation in its own right, as we were promised.

I was moved by the celebration of sisterhood at the recent Sweet Adelines convention. Many of us joined the Society because of a similar desire for brotherhood. The three contest option adds to and doesn’t subtract from that fraternal experience. As Skipp Kropp well said: “The preservation of the all-male and all-female barbershop experience is very much part of the Everyone in Harmony vision…only by adding can we Keep the Whole World Singing” (The Harmonizer July/August 2018, p. 12). This option is the perfect blend of preservation and innovation, simplicity and equality, addition without subtraction, and it is the best path forward to Everyone in Harmony.

Guest contributor David Wright writes:

“I strongly recommend that BHS contests become gender blind, integrating men’s, women’s and mixed ensembles in one unified contest.”

Dr. David Wright

I strongly recommend that BHS contests become gender blind, integrating men’s, women’s and mixed ensembles in one unified contest, instead of separate classifications by gender. This does not necessarily preclude listing or announcing the highest scoring men’s, women’s, and mixed groups, just as we recognize novice winners, highest scoring small chorus, etc., etc.

Gender integration is eminently doable. Our judging categories have already begun to practice scoring the genders against each other. Those of us who have been judging events the past 25 years in Europe know it is easy, that a judge picks it up almost immediately, and that after a short time, one hardly notices gender in arriving at a score. It is not so different from judging male groups with widely varying timbres, for example comparing Michigan Jake with the Boston Common. Our Contest & Judging system has discussed this in great detail, and from my long judging experience, I can virtually guarantee this would not be a significant problem.

Consider many long-held traditions we cherish: the privilege of champions to perform in positions of honor at conventions, e.g. quartets on the Association of International Champions show, or choruses singing away the trophy in a swan song set. Tripling the number of winners means challenges in equitably according places of honor -- perhaps, even, at the expense of audience appreciation for their achievements. To those who say, “Just let the top scorer sing the swan set,” I say, “That exactly makes my point. They are really in competition with each other after all.”

Everyone means all people -- even people we haven’t fully come to recognize yet. Our world today is increasingly learning how to treat with dignity people who are transgender or of non-binary gender identifications. Who are we to decide what a person’s gender is? We should hope to treat all people as unique humans, not solely as men or women.

If we just apply immediate gender blindness to our contest system, the transition will still be gradual. I would expect several more years of all-male champions, and by the time a mixed or women’s group works its way to the top, barbershop audiences will be accustomed to female participation. That pioneering championship will be welcomed and applauded, and there will be another landmark in the remarkable timeline of champions. Even then, the all-male quartet and chorus will be alive and well.

It’s interesting that some folks fault the leadership for going too far, while others suggest they haven’t gone far enough. Perhaps that’s evidence they got it about right!

For the past three decades or more, our leaders have seen how female participation at many levels -- as directors, coaches, faculty members -- has enhanced the barbershop experience in the Society. BHS sponsors youth events around the country that invite both boys and girls; at the request of music educators, our huge youth festival at Midwinter is now gender inclusive.

In all these areas, we have exchanged an exclusively male culture to get something even better: more people singing in more ways. Consider the fantastic environment we now have at Harmony University, with women as faculty and students, music educators, a men’s and women’s chorus and a mixed youth chorus. I don’t think anyone who has been there recently would opt for reverting to an all-male faculty and student body. We now would say that would ruin it.

I love the European barbershop community, which has amazing mixed-gender conventions. Perhaps the best I’ve witnessed was the combined SNOBS/Region 32 Sweet Adelines convention last year that showcased arguably the highest quality mixed quartet singing ever heard. Some of these European events have gender divisions, but others have overall rankings and declare overall medalists and a winner. I may love the spirit of having winners for all the divisions, but I come away asking myself, “Who won?” The honor of the gold is greatly diluted and the winners less memorable. It is the singularity of that honor that makes it special and the pinnacle of the convention week.

A final note: As a historian of barbershop I will make the point that men and women practicing our type of harmony together in a shared venue is not new; it is old. Men and women performed together on the vaudeville circuit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the group that is considered to be the earliest prototype of a barbershop quartet, the Hutchinson Family (1840s, 1850s), was a mixed quartet, and they patterned their harmony after that of some touring Tyrolean ensembles that were also mixed gender. So in some sense EIH represents a return to our roots. Everything old is new again.

Related Reading

Tim Waurick shares a completely different vision for future contests that goes well beyond the current proposal options.

Read more here.

Have feed back to share about the contest proposal? Submit your opinion here!