Coaching The Chaos Theory

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The Chaos Theory, with Floddy the HippoThe Chaos Theory, with Floddy the HippoSunday brought the delightfully-named quartet The Chaos Theory to Birmingham for a day’s coaching. Like several of the groups I am seeing in September, they’re preparing for the LABBS/European Convention in Bournemouth next month, and what looks set to be a tightly-contested (and thus – speaking as an audience member – very enjoyable) quartet contest.

Given the point in the performance-preparation cycle, we were focusing on similar themes to other groups aiming for that event – moving beyond the technical into artistry.

One of the things that most struck me when I was new to barbershop was the astonishing stylistic consistency of contest material – and of course that was one of the points of contest-grade barbershop, to preserve and specialise in certain stylistic thumbprints. The downside of this consistency is the risk that it all starts to sound much the same. The upside is that when an arranger who understands that harmonic language in great depth works with a song that defies those expectations, you can find yourself with a musical narrative that has immense power to engage that specialist audience.

The ballad that The Chaos Theory have chosen for their Finals set, arranged by Brent Graham, has this quality of playing with the listener’s expectations. It sets you up to head in one harmonic direction, and then dives off into distant tonal realms. The key to making these moments work is to understand their expressive purpose in the song: why does the narrative call for a sense of surprise, or wonder, or disconnect from reality at that point in the lyric?

We also explored the use of harmonic colour for emotional effect: the yearn of the augmented triad or of the half-diminished 7th, the jolt of energy from a tight-voiced harmonically-charged barbershop 7th. It’s interesting to note how people produce a cleaner technical execution (more precisely tuned and balanced) when investing a chord with expressive meaning.

In both songs we did some useful work on integrating the breath points into the narrative. This, as ever, was a lot about meaning: carrying the thought over from phrase to phrase so that the story comes over more vividly than the operation of the vocal apparatus.

But it is also a technical issue. Keeping the posture tall and the head poised through breath points both helps the breaths become quieter and eliminates visual distractions that could interrupt the narrative flow.

The barbershop performance habit of pushing through to the end of the phrase is sometimes counterproductive too. This is a habit promoted to stop people tailing off early and leaving great big holes between phrases, and as such is a useful corrective. But when you have singers accomplished enough not to abandon the phrase early, not all musical contexts need a push. Some respond better to phrasing off as you come away from the main focal point of the phrase.

Working out which is which has useful effects in two dimensions. From the perspective of communication, you get a more natural and believable delivery of the lyric. From the perspective of singing technique, the breath is more relaxed, less effortful, and therefore likely to serve the following phrase better, as well as being less of a distraction to the flow.

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