The Presentation Category may soon be the Performance Category. The proposed name change would mark a major update in the way performances are scored and evaluated, with a renewed emphasis on what today’s audiences consider most entertaining. The full story is coming in the forthcoming November 2015 issue of The Harmonizer, but you can read the complete DRAFT category description for the proposed Performance Category now!
by Kevin Keller 2012-2015 Contest and Judging Chair
If we look back on the history of the judging system, our major changes have come about every 20 years or so. After the initial implementation of the category system in 1950, the next major change was in 1971. The current categories we are judged by today started in the Fall of 1993. Almost on schedule, we are going to have one major change in our judging system in 2016. The Presentation Category (PRS) will be retired and a new Performance Category (PER) will be implemented, effective beginning in the Fall 2016 contests. The Singing, Music, and Contest Administrator categories will remain intact.
When the Society Contest and Judging Committee presented this proposal to the Society Board of Directors, the many questions and concerns that they raised boiled down to “why?” and “why now?”
Allow me to address “why now?” which will lead into “why?”
A history lesson: “Why now?”
As we look back into our past, the “Stage Presence” oriented categories had a high focus on uniformity. Uniformity of look, movement, precision, etc. Despite today’s Presentation category no longer requiring this uniformity, the legacy of the prior judging systems is still with us today.
Within a few years after the introduction of the Presentation category in 1993, judges were already challenging that competitors needed to be more entertaining. Out of these discussions came the “Show Package Finals” pilots conducted at the end of the 1990s. Although that concept didn’t stick, the concern about how we entertain never went away.
In the Category School of 2001, then PRS Category Specialist (CS) Larry Clemons challenged the paradigm that quartets and choruses had to do certain things just because we had always done them that way. For example, a quartet walks on stage, accepts the applause, walks back, looks at each other, then looks back at the audience. Look familiar? The absence of patterned behaviors is not a reason to score high or low. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, what doesn’t work for that group for that setting? The next CS, Trep Treptow, began discussing the idea of “relevance” with the PRS judges. Is the way we present ourselves “relevant” with our public? Do we teach and reward behaviors that aren’t relevant with our audiences? How do we educate our performers to be connected with the audience in a relevant and meaningful way?
Following that, Trep and Joe Hunter (incoming PRS CS) launched a “Real World Relevancy” test. In each district’s Prelims, people who had little or no prior exposure to barbershop were invited to be guest judges during the Quartet Finals. Although there were a few failures in that simple exercise, most districts actually conducted these pilots. Each person was given a clipboard and paper with simple instructions: “Score and rank how you were entertained by each quartet.” The ability to be scientifically rigorous in the research question was extremely hard, if not impossible. As a result, many assumptions had to be made. Yet, there were two clear messages learned in this study.
1. Often audience members did not agree with each other about what was entertaining.
2. In the contests where audience members did have some agreement among each other about the ranking of what was entertaining, their ranks were correlated with the PRS judges’ scores and ranks.
For the last three Category Schools (2007, 2010, and 2013), the PRS category has spent significant time watching performances outside the barbershop genre, studying what was engaging about them, and then asking, “what could be brought into the barbershop style that would elevate the performance level?” During Marty Lovick’s term as PRS CS and current PRS CS David Leeder’s term, each focused on “The Art of Performance.” At the 2013 Category School, David suspended the PRS Category Description for a day; the PRS judges scored “entertainment and performance quality,” not what was expected of a barbershop quartet or chorus to do.
Last year, a study was published that showed the impact that cellphones had on body tension. As we bend our head and shoulders over, the body tension and pressure increases dramatically. It caused me to question how much body tension we generate by doing things that we perceive we need to do in order to “score well in PRS.” I challenged the judging community to rationalize how we achieve vocal freedom and body alignment with the patterned behaviors we believe we are rewarded for (e.g., the barbershop squat, waving wheat as chorus members to make the judges and audience think we’re engaged in the performance, flailing arms used to communicate the lyrical content, etc.).
Each CS and his Board of Review (BOR) discussed the issues. At our SCJC meeting at Pittsburgh, it became apparent that we all saw value in changing our belief system about what generates a highly engaging performance. After discussing a variety of ways that that could be done, we decided that the most effective way would be to change the category. (We could make the changes within the existing category construct, but then we wouldn’t have your attention!) By changing the category name and description, it creates a distinct change in focus. Rather than taking an evolutionary approach within the existing category, which leads to great confusion amongst competitors and audience members during the evolution, a hard change creates a more revolutionary approach that drives attention and gets us to the end state faster.
A new category: “Why?”
Much of why has actually been answered above. In the end, we believe that there are higher levels of performance available for us, and that our current beliefs are getting in the way. Many of us have heard the expression “transcending technique to artistry.” We learn techniques to give us a foundation, to give us purpose, to help us overcome limitations in our own skills. Technique is important and has its place. But if we rely solely on technique, we never achieve artistic levels.
For those of us who have been around for 25+ years, we see and hear the dramatic change that the current category system has had on our performances, in all of our singers at all levels. We sing better, have better delivery, and perform better, without question, and it’s dramatic at all levels.
Where the SNG and MUS categories have been able to evolve over time with the idea of “transcending technique to artistry,” our performances have not evolved at the same rate. We still see patterned behaviors that go back many decades. They often visually distract otherwise engaging performances; they can interfere with freely produced singing and musical deliveries.
Our audiences should never have to say, “why do you do that?” If it works, then they should say, “that was cool!” When audiences and outsiders ask “why” then we should look from the outside in and challenge if we are “rewarding” the wrong things! We should also welcome successful new and innovative visual presentations that add depth and breadth to our stye vs questioning “will the judges ‘penalize’ them?” The days of “DQing” or “penalizing” are long gone, but the paradigm still exists and it’s time to change our mindsets on that as well.
Proposed implementation: Fall 2016
The SBOD will vote on giving its final approval on the documents at Midwinter but at this time are completely supportive of the new direction that C&J will be taking in an effort to raise our performance levels to new heights.
The change is recommended to occur beginning in the Fall of 2016. Through the 2016 International contests in Nashville, we will continue to judge under the PRS CD. There will be parallel training efforts going on throughout 2016. At the Category School in July, 2016, all certified and candidate PRS judges will certify under the PER category. This school will provide the final alignment.
Joe Hunter is the Project Manager for this, and I will serve as the SCJC liaison for this change. Following this article, there will be communication about the specifics of what is changing and forums for questions and answers. There will be additional communication in 2016 providing more information.
SCJC believes that this change will also positively impact the singing and musical aspects of the performance, raising our barbershop artform to a higher level.