Friday, December 10, 2010

Goin' social through song and axe

It's pouring rain in Matt Wilson's backyard.

About 40 people have come to battle the damp and chilly October night, all in the name of Wilson’s game: Backyard Axe Throwing League (B.A.T.L.).

Players step up to a stone plate, wield their individually painted hatchets behind their heads and aim for the bull’s-eye on a rectangular-shaped wood plank target 15 feet ahead.

“It’s satisfying as all hell; the sound it makes and the feeling you get when you throw it and it sticks in the bull’s-eye,” Wilson said. “Then you just want to throw five in a row.”

But not everyone has come to throw an axe. Half of the people there want the entertainment.

“It’s totally a social thing,“ Wilson said. “When you’re not playing, you’re hanging out and you’re watching and you’re cheering.”

A similar social element exists in Toronto’s do-it-yourself acappella singing group, Tunes Beats Awesome (TBA).

‘Have fun. Sing good.’ That’s TBA’s mantra.

Eight years ago when it began, Jeff Magee started singing with TBA; he’s since become co-director of the group.

Every Sunday, Magee drives from Pickering to the Hart House building at the University of Toronto campus to meet with the other 17 group members for rehearsal.

Magee conducts each rehearsal, coaching the singers and giving them feedback. When TBA performs at events such as Acappellooza - where they gave two sold-out shows last year - he joins the group on stage to provide the vocal percussion.

When they’re not rehearsing, Magee and co-director Katherine Dodds have their hands full running the group.

“TBA’s not just a Sunday-run group,” Magee said. “You have to be thinking about everything every single day.”

Printing off sheet music, booking gigs and directing their publicity keep Magee and Dodds occupied. Although Magee finds it tiring, the reaction he sees from the singers makes it all worthwhile.

“You get a lot back from it just seeing how much they enjoy it,” he said. “I wouldn’t put the effort in if I didn’t feel it was rewarding.”

Clips from B.A.T.L. featuring TBA's version of "Battlefield"

Wilson’s B.A.T.L. began while on a cottage trip in the summer of 2006. Wilson and his friends started throwing a hatchet into a tree to pass the time. They soon added rules and a point system. Five throws per player per round, three rounds per set. Players get five points for the bull’s-eye, three points in the ring around it and one point for the outer ring. The player with the most points wins the round as they play a best-of-three set.

When Wilson returned home from the cottage trip, he built the first B.A.T.L. target and convinced a dozen friends to contribute $25 for materials and to join the fun.

Since then, B.A.T.L. has continued to grow in popularity. This year has been particularly significant for Wilson.

“I took the plunge to make it two nights (per week) and did all of the legal stuff to make it completely legitimate,” he said. “I’m now treating it like something that I could do for a living, within the next year maybe.”

Wilson plans to eventually move the league indoors and run it year-round. He explained why he thinks the game attracts competitors.

“There’s an element for people who feel like they shouldn’t be allowed to do it,” he said. “You’re throwing an axe ... It sounds completely dangerous, but when you get back there and see it, it’s not at all; it’s totally organized.”

David Banerjee, a Toronto teacher with an MA in educational theory, explained why people engage in activities outside their daily work routine.

“We have a minimum amount of social intercourse that we need,” Banerjee said. “We are pleasure-seeking ... We like to be around each other. We’re evolved for tribal living and it’s nice to have fun.”

Banerjee added that people have been designed to find meaning in the world by doing something they enjoy.

“People structure their understanding of the world by saying, ‘I’m not really going to try and understand the world, I just want to understand my little piece of it ... and I’ll be pretty happy,’” he said.

Sharing that understanding with others appears to be a common theme for TBA and B.A.T.L. participants. Just like Wilson said, Magee finds value in the social aspect of acappella singing.

“Some of the best times we have are when we go to Michigan and meet other groups,” Magee said. “It’s like a family ... You’re all music nerds.”

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