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A 4-part World in Harmony

Welcome to Membership of The VIPs

aka Ipswich Barbershop Harmony Club!
On this page we have tried to gather together many of the things you might like to know about our Club, our activities and generally what Barbershop singing is all about. In due course we shall have a blog where you can make comments, suggestions and criticisms, but for now, please direct comments to any Committee Member who will listen!

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You will already have spent a few weeks getting used to our regular practice evenings and you will have learnt enough of one of our easier songs to be able to demonstrate that you can sing in tune without the paper music and you can hold your part when singing against another voice. In fact, passing your audition is the main qualification for membership of The VIPs.

These, then, are the elements of barbershop singing - for The ViPs at least. We always sing unaccompanied by instruments. We always sing from memory except in the early run through of a new song. We always sing 4-part harmony apart from occasional passages of solo or duet.

As our skills improve, we will learn how to sing the notes of each chord so well in tune that the chord locks and harmonic resonances produce overtones, the so-called "ringing", characteristic of A Cappella singing.

Aside from all that, the other main requirement is regular attendance at rehearsals. Because we are always learning new songs and looking for improvement in our performance, we do expect good attendance. Our target is 80%. This means ideally less then 10 weeks "off" each year, so plenty of allowance for holidays, family activities, sickness and so on. You will obviously not want to miss sing outs.


The whole reason for learning to sing in the Barbershop style is to sing our songs as well as possible to whoever will listen and enjoy! Some of the events we take part in are competitive music festivals or conventions where each performance is judged against a set of well understood criteria. The exercise is a useful way to obtain unbiased and constructive criticism of our performance.

The biggest competition in the UK takes place at the end of May each year. In 2014, over 40 choruses met in Harrogate and competed for the main prize. 20 Quartets took part in the finals of a separate competition. The 2017 convention was held in Bournemouth and our chorus achieved 27th place after a one year break. Choruses are placed in divisions according to their historical results. In 2018, in Harrogate, we moved up one place but improved our score by a huge (by Barbershop standards) increase of 6.4%. In 2019 we gained 6 places to 18th and improved yet again, this time by 4.7% over 2018. This represents the product of a lot of work in rehearsal improving resonance, tuning and singing quality. We are not slaves to Convention but it helps us to measure our improvement which, in turn, helps us to give our audiences that feel good factor that comes from listening to really good singing.

For ambitious choruses, International competitions can take singers all over the world. Aside from performance standards, the common theme is the comradeship both within the chorus and among competitors at the informal "afterglow" gatherings surrounding the main event.


Our subs will be set each year after examination of the accounts and estimating future expenses. To minimise time the Treasurer has to spend on the admin, payment is asked for by monthly standing order.

The Club‘s bank account is designed to run with minimum input from The Treasurer. Most of you have completed standing orders already ‐ thank you. This really helps us keep track of subscriptions, saving precious time chasing those that go astray!

More detail can be found in the documented Constitution.

Expenses incurred by our Club include hire of the meeting hall, purchase of music and teach tracks, arrangement fees and competition entries, not to mention affiliation fees to BABS, the British Association of Barbershop Singers (See below). These are the regular expenses covered by your subscriptions, without which the Club would not exist.

The level of subs is set just high enough to provide a small surplus for prudence, but is not intended to raise a profit. Money for expenses such as travel, uniforms, performance equipment such as risers, hire of lighting and PA system, and so on, has to be raised by profitable activities such as concerts and private functions.

We organise fund raising events from time to time, to help keep the club afloat. The last one was back in March 2018. Recently we have picked up several paid gigs which really helps us pay for music copyright for new songs, and demonstrates that folk are happy to pay to hear us sing for them.

BABS Membership

BABS (The British Association of Barbershop Singers) is the national organisation co-ordinating all things Barbershop in the UK. It used to be men only, but has recently accepted Mixed choruses into membership, and hence women members. There are two independent organisations (LABBS and Sweet Adelines) that cater for ladies-only choruses.

We require our members to become members of BABS, so the BABS membership fee is included in the annual Club subscription. Like the Club subscription, it is an annual fee. It is payable on 1st January each year and the Club pays on your behalf. BABS membership is required for all singers wishing to sing on stage at Convention, be it in Chorus or in Quartet.

Membership of BABS also gives members free access to the services of Making Music providing, amongst other things, free insurance cover for singers and musicians at concerts and other sing outs supported by IBHC.

Copying Music

Although it is not strictly necessary for Barbershop singers to be able to read music, many members like to have access to the written copy of the arrangements we use to help us learn our songs. It is often useful to be able to annotate individual copies with notes on musical interpretation and alterations to music or text as well as breath points, dynamics, etc.

The copies on the web site have been purchased by the Club. They are subject to copyright and are available for downloading by members only. Please do not print more than one copy. If you don't have a printer available, any Committee member will be able to provide a paper copy if required. Passing copies on to non-members either electronically or on paper is strictly forbidden and may result in termination of membership.

Teach Tracks

Teach Tracks provide a very important training aid for learning Barbershop songs (see next item). They are usually provided in quartet format from real quartets or very skilled multi-voice singers. Because we often look for unusual arrangements the teach tracks may be recorded specially for the club.

Our teach tracks include four copies with separate voices highlighted as well as a full harmony copy. Any or all may be downloaded as required. Access is limited by password to paid up members only. Once a song is learned, it may be useful to practice singing against one of the other voices to increase confidence and improve understanding of the harmonies.

Learning Songs

There are several stages to learning our songs, the first of which involves getting the words and tune into the brain. In the pre-technology age, this might be done by repeated re-reading / singing using the paper copy with perhaps the help of an instrument or pitch pipe to pick out the tune. This is a slow and painful process whose accuracy you only discover at the first rehearsal!

With the track/s loaded onto a smart phone or an iPod or similar, it is possible to set the desired track to repeat song and to allow subliminal learning while pursuing some other activity, so long as it doesn't require too much concentration. (Learning this way while driving is not recommended, but using a CD recording in the in-car system, however, is possibly safer.)

There is a preferred sequential approach to learning a new song. It is well described in The ViPs - A Guide to Learning a New Song. But this is only the first stage. Some of the things that make a Barbershop performance special are:
  • Singing in tune
  • Singing with the same vocal shape
  • Singing with the same dynamics (timing, volume, emphasis)
  • Getting the balance right between voices
  • Singing with engagement (expressing the meaning of the words)
  • Singing with visible expression
These characteristics are learnt by repetition in chorus under the guidance and instruction of the Musical Director. Making notes on your paper copy may be useful here. Also useful is the recorder, capturing what the MD says and what it sounds like when we get it right! This has the advantage that you can practice the latest "right" version when you get home. Yes, we are supposed to practice at home between rehearsal evenings!

Current Song List

At the time of editing this (November 2019) we have fourteen songs at performance standard and two new ones just started. Songs intended for competition need further polishing ahead of the event. This represents 6 months or more of hard work by both the chorus and the MD. We have been performing many of our rep songs, at concerts, etc., for a couple of years now, but we always need to learn new material to give us a wider repertoire and a few numbers chosen for topical reasons have been dropped. This allows us to vary our programme according to the audience, always trying to provide something new and challenging for the chorus to get to grips with.

The choice of material for the chorus is made by the Music Committee under guidance from the MD. It is always coloured by availability of Barbershop arrangements and UK copyright. The song's age and type also need to be considered, as well as suitability for competition if that is the objective. The Music Committee is always happy to take forward members' ideas for songs. Details of the Current Song List and the songs being considered are now to be found in the "Music" section. This will be updated as we progress.

What is Barbershop Singing?

The British Association of Barbershop Singers, our "parent" national organisation, carries, on its web site, an article that attempts to answer this question. You do have to be a bit of a linguist to understand some of it though, so it may be best left till you have the time to study it in depth! It is entitled What is Barbershop singing? and describes the essential characteristics in some detail.

A better answer maybe lies in the near mythical story of O.C.Cash and his invitation to a party he described as a songfest, issued to 14 of his pals who could sing. This was in April 1938. At the time, Barber Shop Quartet singing was a popular pastime, but an ad hoc activity, seemingly not organised, and certainly not performed in large groups. The story is told on the American Barbershop Harmony web site under the weird title "It All Started with 26 Men on a Roof"! While it does no harm, perhaps, to perpetuate the tale, the roots of Barbershop music reach much further back into America's cultural past. On the same page as the O.C.Cash story is a link to a well researched article on the source of Barbershop. To save you searching, you will find a copy here under the title The Historical Roots of Barbershop Harmony. Beyond all the theory, though, the point is that Barbershop is primarily about a bunch of guys getting together to make beautiful music using songs we all enjoy.

From the musical point of view, there are good technical reasons why unaccompanied close harmony quartet singing (male or female) is able to produce the splendid sound that it can, if performed well. We are all so used to the bland sound made by tempered instruments like the piano or the guitar that we don't realise what we are missing. Perhaps the first step towards understanding is to listen to the better performances at Barbershop competitions such as the National Convention. When you hear this, your question may change from "What is Barbershop?" to "How can I sing Barbershop like that?".

While looking for answers myself I came across this article - "Ringing Chords and Physics" . It takes the form of a letter from Dr Jim Richards, Physicist, Harmony Instructor and one-time President of BHS, in reply to an enquiry from a past student, Rob Whalley. It might be interesting for anyone with a bit of basic Maths or Physics. It seeks to explain why the same note in a different chord needs to be different, and what happens when the sounds from four different, but related notes are combined, and why it doesn't work with any instrument except the voice. It may also help to explain why Peter (our MD) sometimes listens so intently when he gets us to hold on to chords, and why he tells a section they need to be "sharper". We have mostly been trained to sing the conventional note and it just doesn't work for Barbershop.

Clearly there is much more to this subject and the internet is a great source of relevant stuff if you have the time and patience to search for it.

Uniforms for The VIPs

Appearance is a very important part of the stage performance in Barbershop. So, to provide consistency and an agreed image, we have several uniform styles available to us when performing as The VIPs. At present, we have a black suit for competition, and black trousers for less formal situations.

To go with these we have a purple shirt, a gold shirt and a black polo style top with gold logo. We also have a white dress shirt and bow tie for ringing the changes.

The Club will pay for new gold shirts if needed as these are stock items. The purple ones were from George (ASDA) for our first event in March 2014 and are no longer available! The Club will buy a new set of shirts when required, so this is one reason why we need to put on fund raising concerts!


Convention takes place over the late Bank Holiday weekend each May. The event is the National Meeting for Barbershoppers across the country and includes competitions for Quartets and Mixed choruses as well as the National Men's Chorus Competition. There are usually interesting workshops and communal singing opportunities (tags and afterglow) as well.

For The VIPs it presents an opportunity to measure our performance against the judges standards to find out how well we have progressed though the year. There is also the chance to compare our performance with the other choruses we like to follow.

Above all, it hosts a showcase for excellent Barbershop singing, both in Chorus and Quartet format, with visits from top European and North American groups.

Don't forget that you will need to register for the days you want to attend BABS events, including the competition on Saturday. You don't have to register for Friday or Sunday but if you want to go to the Friday or Sunday shows, you will need to buy tickets and you won't get into the other events if you don't register. Ask an old hand if you don't quite get it!

You will also need accommodation to suit your pocket. The earlier you book, the better the choice.

2020 Harrogate
2021 Bournemouth

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