LABBS Harmony College 2023 – A Celebration, Embracing Friends and Singing Education

String singing Friendships are formed at LABBS Harmony College
Written By Mary Williams – Choir Leader, Singer & Blog Writer

This Early Spring May Bank Holiday weekend took me to the Ladies Association of Barbershop Singers LABBS Harmony College in Nottingham. This event is held every few years, and it’s a joyous celebration of barbershop singing with hours of education to grow your mind and musical skill set – aimed at anyone interested in Barbershop Harmony, whatever their level of experience. The guest educator was the inspirational Kim Newcomb from the US, an outstanding teacher, quartet singer and chorus director in Sweet Adeline’s.

There is something for everyone.

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Harmony College Streams to suit everyone from Extreme Quartet Singing to Chorus Coaching

Me directing a song at LABBS Harmony College with the chorus choir

People picked an education focus stream they wanted to do the most before the event. Streams included two Harmony College Choruses, Treble EQ Harmony Brigade (learning six songs to a good standard and singing them in random quartets), Personal Development and Quartet/Small Group Coaching. And in addition, there were two sessions of Pick’n’Mix Classes run by people like me who offered to lead a breakout session. These you could choose on the day.

I was personally enrolled on the Music Directors Stream co-ordinated by experienced educators Liz Garnett and Jo Braham. I’ve been to these before, and Liz’s thoughtful and careful approach to teaching would nurture and enrich me to give me the emotional boost and self-belief I need in my own abilities as someone who stands up in front of my singers weekly.

For me, it was the first big education event I had been able to attend since before the pandemic. My attempt last year at doing the LABBS Director Training weekend in 2022 ended up with me catching Covid a few days before. Frustratingly I was filled with FOMO (fear of missing out) whilst coughing away in bed with a raging temperature – when I so desperately wanted to be in the classes and craving the need to soak in lots of inspiration.

Arriving at LABBS Harmony College.

At Harmony College, I arrived on Friday evening after a longer-than-expected five-hour drive on my own – as the sole representative from my chorus. Weary with an aching hand from driving, yet filled with mixed emotions of curious expectations and the worry that I might not know whom to hang out with.

I opened my car door to be greeted by someone shouting across the car park, “Hi Mary! It’s been ages– we’ll catch up later after I unpack!”. I felt so pleased that someone spotted me, and even now, I get amazed when people remember my name.

My room was in the student accommodation, and once I found it and unpacked and checked out my single bed for comfort, it was already time for tea (or dinner time if you aren’t from my locality of Bristol!).

A casual conference encounter is so different from a class activity with a mission. For me, this arrival as a singing event can be the most challenging part. However, as I have often experienced it, I always feel awkward.

So I put on my big girl pants, smoothed down the “grown-up” dress that makes me feel stronger and put my named lanyard around my neck. With my head held artificially high to fool my mind and body, trying to fulfil an image of looking like I wasn’t alone, appearing in control and not wanting to look desperate for connection, I went to the Atrium.

Meet and greet over dinner – it’s scary.

I knew a few faces, so I made a beeline for those I recognised to say hello to begin. I worked my way around. Most people are doing this in the “Meet and Greet” stage of these singing events. They move from person to person as new people arrive. It’s very typical, and the connections are fleeting.

Then it became time to think about eating (a top benefit of being away is excellent food that I don’t have to cook or clean up afterwards! Finding somewhere to eat it and deciding whom to sit with is more challenging.

I tell you – it’s straightforward to spot friendly faces you recognise. But when familiar faces are part of bigger tight-knit groups, gangs of choruses, old friends, and quartets who know each other better than you do, it becomes pretty scary to approach them myself as a self-perceived “outsider”.

However, unless I were to get invited to a table by others, I look out for other like-minded people sitting alone or in groups of 2 or 3 people as I suspect they may be feeling the same. And then I pluck up the courage to ask if I can join them. Everyone usually says yes, BTW. So it’s a good strategy.

And here, this is where the singing event really begins – over the dinner table. Here you make friends, chat, laugh and talk in the knowledge that we have a shared interest in barbershop music. You don’t get time in a scheduled class or choir rehearsals to find the people behind our masks. This makes it worth facing the horrible uncomfortableness head-on that I felt before meeting them.

We laughed, and we shall sing – the LABBS polecat songs.

Then we sang the LABBS Polecats – A cappella music that we learned to sing in advance to gather and sing as one. I don’t regret putting my hand up at the last minute, even if I were shaking! And I got to direct a song in public which was fabulous as it pushed my comfort zone to direct people outside of who I don’t know very well.

By the end of that night, I had found some people on my Barbershop Directors Stream, been sharing and singing a few songs with whoever and a new friend I had just met that day arranged to meet another lovely singer friend and me for a jog the following morning at 7.45 am. Result again. I felt exhausted but happy.

I continued this pattern throughout the weekend. Linking up with small groups and sitting with new people. It works.

Just as we left the room the following day in full running gear (you know, the drill – bright orange tops and lycra etc.), the fire alarm sounded in the accommodation. We gathered outside, surrounded by people in their PJs then the three of us went out for a two-mile dash in the morning sunlight.

The singing runners at LABBS Harmony College

Keynote speech – A inspirational opening to the Harmony College Education Weekend.

At 10 am, we gathered for the College opening and the Keynote Speech. Kim Newcomb delivered a poignant talk that resonated with me and many others. It was about letting go of ultimate perfection, sucking the life of being a singer and learning to enjoy the process and growing friendships. It’s about getting the healthy balance right which is very tricky, acceptance and letting go of the things that bring you down, like unrealistic goals or bad feelings.

It’s not always easy to find the right balance towards working for being Brilliant versus Fun, as I can attest myself as I have been down my own negative rabbit holes at times. A few years ago, someone politely reminded me that singers aren’t robots as I tried to tick off every single imperfection.

When Kim spoke, her words mirrored my experiences, and she struck me as a wise person for her years. I wish I had known what she does at her age. Kim shined on stage with positivity, knowledge and the room was mesmerised by what she had to say.

Then we went to various classes, and I met my fellow directors. I was taking notes all day, adding to my knowledge and trying out the exercises. I was reminded again that I struggle with encountering new warmup vocal exercises with unexpected moves at first, so my Avon Harmony A Cappella choir in Bristol can rest assured they will be saved from my half demonstration for a couple of weeks until I master them myself!

Having fun singing in quartets

Had a tremendous empowering first Pick’n’Mix session where I visited one with the QC’s (Quartet Champions) to sing in a quartet with Delyth Knight, Sandra Lee Riley and Emma Shanks. The group split into two to allow new quartet singers a safe, supported space and for us who felt more confident singing in a quartet to embrace our sense of adventure.

Here we sang in rolling quartets and octets and experimented with part switching! Kudos to this excellent singing extravaganza, as we all left with a smile.

Conductor Coaching

Liz coached me as a choir music leader directing a song sung by Gem Connection Chorus, who were our willing volunteer guinea pig choir singers. They expressed they were bored of Anthem, so I swapped it for one newer to them- but I can assure you that I was somewhat nervous, too, so we were all in the same boat!

As a director, I have toned down what I do significantly over many years to become clearer. A few years ago, I moved too much of my whole body and sang with them, confusing my singers. That has stopped. One thing remains- my next task is removing my automatic tapping foot, which is keeping beat.

Watching “In House” Quartet and then off to the bar.

The day progressed and finished with a quartet coaching under glass session by Kim with “In House” Quartet. All in all – Saturday was most excellent.

Saturday finished with more singing at the bar in the Atrium. I fell into bed at about 12.30 am with another sleepy smile.

Sunday was an earlier start. By 9 am, we were warming up with Kim in the auditorium. The vibe was upbeat, energetic and heart-warming.

Back to the director’s classes, where we reflected on music interpretation and other issues that interested us as MDs and the Music Team.

Chorus Culture

Kim gave the Directors a bespoke address on Chorus Culture from the point of leadership in a choir and chorus. In particular, the notable mention I pulled from this is a reminder to use inclusive and precise language, avoid shaming and set expectations clearly. In my everyday life, looking after children and in schools – this is very standard practice, and as someone who has worked with LAC children and adoptees, it reminded me strongly of Parenting with PACE, which I trained in.

Say Goodbye to Stage Fright!

It was my turn to teach in the Pick’n’Mix, so I took on Tackling Stage Fright. I was anxious myself and didn’t know if anyone would come. I didn’t need to worry, though, and we had a group arrive where we opened up about our fears; I gave out “too much information” about what it does to me and my body (!!!!!) and shared my ideas to help people cope in those situations that work. More about this in another blog (to come).

By the time we had lunch, we were beginning to flag. However, the best bit was to come—the showcase.

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The Showcase of Singers – what a performance!

This is a chance for everyone in a chorus, quartet or small group, plus the winners of the EQ stream, to perform. The show was an absolute delight. It started with Helen Lappert‘s Red Chorus, and the quartets got a lovely slot each. A notable mention to my fellow Bristol singers, “Specs Appeal Quartet,” who bought the entire house to their feet in a standing ovation with a stunning madrigal.

The EQ singers had a winning quartet plus a fantasy one chosen by the singers. I have a special love and affinity for EQ/UKHB because I was one of the original two women who did it for the first time at BABS Harmony College in 2013. I’ve quietly done many events over the years in various places, from Nottingham to Berlin.

And then it finished with the Blue Chorus with Craig Kehoe singing a splendid rendition of Look for The Silver Lining.

Roll on to the next Harmony College!

And then it was over. We laughed, cried, hugged and rejoiced over the weekend. I have made new friends for life, deepened other relationships and filled my mind with valuable ideas and solutions to play and experiment with. I challenged myself and overcame my own hurdles to push my limits. As I say to others, it’s okay to be you and be kind to yourself and others.

We packed up our bags and went on home. My mind was filled with answers and more questions. I want to learn more about singing and the people I meet—just the way it needs to be as an authentic, Curious Singer.

With special thanks to LABBS (Ladies Association of Barbershop Singers), the hardworking Debi Cox, the Dean, organising committees and all the Faculty, including Kim Newcomb and Liz Garnett. My chorus Avon Harmony sponsored me to go as their MD, and I am incredibly grateful – thank you.

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Take care,



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