Remote Rehearsing: Can We Sing Together?

I will stop blogging about remote rehearsing all the time in due course. It’s just that when a lot of us are learning a lot in a short time is when it is useful to share ideas. You can wait a bit longer to hear how the 8-part arranging project is going (quite well, btw).

So, the question that everyone always wants to ask is: can we actually do any singing together in an online choral rehearsal? You, know, like the definition of ‘choral’ would regard as pretty much essential. And the answer is usually no: there’s too much lag, sorry.

Like everyone else doing this lark, I came away from my first remote rehearsal both incredibly buoyed up by having been able to do it at all, and craving harmony. So we did some experimenting in our Music Team meeting that was fortuitously already scheduled for that week, and found ourselves some improvements for our next chorus night.

On Surface Over-Compensating

When I was observing a lot of conductors as the heart of the research for my choral conducting book, I noticed how certain hand positions appear to correlate with certain types of relationship with the activity. In particular, I noted a kind of angular hand shape: wrists cocked back, fingers straight and folded forward at a right angle from the main knuckle, thumbs sticking up, and the ictus formed by a kind of scooping motion with the heel of the hand.

The choral sounds that this hand shape typically elicited were quite bright in tone, and reasonably well controlled, but often containing audible vocal tension and lacking bloom on the sound. The overall sound was often rather more contained and muted than you might have expected from the number of singers involved.

Remote Rehearsing: Initial Impressions

Screen-shot from our tea-breakScreen-shot from our tea-break

Well, the internet is fizzing with accounts of how people have been getting on with taking their rehearsals online, so I’m not sure this one is really needed. But I was going to write up my reflections anyway to inform our plans as they develop, so I thought I may was well do this thinking in public, in case anyone was curious about how we actually got on after my last post on the subject.

We used Zoom, and followed a plan sent out in advance with links for each segment of the rehearsal. The first and last segments were all together, with me leading and the chorus doing stuff with mics off – respectively a warm-up, using exercises we use regularly and can all do, and teaching a rhythm exercise for people to practise during the week. We had ten minutes offline midway for a comfort break and to make a cuppa, then 15 mins together with mics on for club business and social time.

Remote Rehearsing for a Time of Social Distancing

From this week, the Telfordaires are moving to remote working for our weekly club night. We made this decision, first, for the obvious public health reasons. Well, I say obvious, but apparently not so very obvious to the UK government, who seem happy to ignore WHO recommendations. But even if our decision is over-cautious, the second reason still remains. [Edit: a few hours after I published this, the UK advice got more sensible. I think it was modelers at Imperial College rather than this post they were responding to though...]

The position that many groups have proposed of, ‘We’ll go ahead but if you feel at risk, stay away, while we continue with the nice things,’ seems to me rather unkind to those already disadvantaged by circumstance. We wanted to find a way for us all to have the nice things, including those chorus members with specific risk factors and/or family members to protect.

The two main reasons I have seen for continuing choir rehearsals in the face of COVID19 are, first, because cancellation devastates the incomes of freelance choral leaders, and, second, because a choir is such an important social/emotional support for its members. Moving to remote working rather than cancelling addresses both of these, and the second in particular has significantly influenced my thinking about quite how to approach this. (Hat-tip at this point to Elizabeth Davies for telling me to read Daniel Coyle's The Culture Code some time back. I've been thinking a lot about it recently for a different project, and it has also proven very useful for this one.)

8-Parter Project: The Cost-per-Wear Problem

One of the practical issues facing a chorus or quartet planning to join with another for a joint piece on a particular performance is that it needs rehearsing properly to bring it to the stage, but you don’t get nearly so much performance use out of it, unless the two ensembles are appearing together regularly. 8-parter, double-ensemble pieces are inherently expensive of rehearsal time on a cost-per-wear basis.

Hence, one of the challenges I set myself during my exploration of this form is to discover whether it is possible to produce an 8-part, double ensemble chart in which the parts for each separate ensemble are also musically complete in their own right. It would be much more useful, after all, if you could both learn a song in parts that fit your own range properly, use it in your regular performance programme, and then sing it together at joint events.

Thoughts on Performance and Skill-Development

Over the autumn and winter I found myself teaching two courses designed to bring relative novices up to a decent foundational level of skill. One was the Initial conducting course for the Association of British Choral Directors that took place on four Saturdays in Newcastle between October and February. The other was the Learn to Sing in Harmony course hosted by the Telfordaires for 90 minutes each week on our first six rehearsals of the new year.

I found myself having the same conversation with more than one person on each of these courses, where they would remark that they had practised at home and were confident they could do a particular musical task, but when came to the next session it suddenly became much harder. In the former case, it was about how the beat patterns for 2, 3 and 4 seem simple until you add other things them like cueing, or indeed listening to the singers you are leading at the same time. In the latter, it was about how you can sing your part perfectly well by yourself, but it becomes a lot harder when you add the other three parts into the mix.

8-Parter Project: Double Quartet or Double Chorus?

Having considered the nature of the 8-part ensemble from the perspective of genre (SATB divisi versus combined male and female barbershop ensembles), we also need to consider the question of whether we’re thinking about combined choruses or quartets, i.e. whether we have one person or several people singing each part.

This is something I’ve thought about in general terms, and I was interested to look back and see that it also was all the way back in 2009 that I first wrote about it, and moreover that my thoughts were relatively underdeveloped back then. I’ve done a lot more thinking since about the nature of doubling: how you can move more flexibly between different numbers of sounding lines when you have a multiple voices per part than you can with one-a-part textures. This was something I particularly enjoyed with Magenta; in a group where we all sang different parts for different songs, we could move seamlessly between unisons, duets and full harmonies because we were all accustomed to blending with different combinations of voices as a matter of course.

Adventures in Aberdeenshire

Traditional warm-up pic: with added antlersTraditional warm-up pic: with added antlers

I spent the weekend up in snowy Aberdeenshire with the Granite City Chorus at their annual retreat. They have an effective structure for the event, which they hold at a hotel about 45 minutes out of the city where they’re based – close enough for convenience, but far enough to feel bracketed off from regular life. We had a full day for coaching on the Saturday, followed by a convivial evening, with a nice balance of planned activity (meal, quiz, singing) and unstructured social time. Sunday’s work finished with lunch, meaning everyone could find their way back to real life before they got too wiped out.

The thing that makes this structure so effective is the chance to work on things, then revisit them after a night’s sleep. It is during sleep that new skills and knowledge get transferred from short-term memory into longer-term storage, so on the second day you discover which bits made that journey safely, and which bits fell out en route. There’ll always be some of each, but you can’t tell in advance which will be which. It also gives you the opportunity at the end of the first day to discuss together what people would like to spend time on in the morning. As a coach, this means you go in better prepared, and as a singer you go in primed for what’s coming next.

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