Harmonising Blue Notes

At the start of this year, I was sharing some feedback with an arranger on a chart-in-progress, and went to send him my post on the difference between blue 3rds and minor 3rds. It turned out that I’d never actually written it, and what I was remembering having written took place in an email conversation with Adam Scott back in 2014 when he was commissioning ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the Barbershop Harmony Society.

So it looks like I should probably get around to writing it now, as the technical and artistic challenges of blue notes for a cappella arranging aren’t going to go away.

On Finding Your Audience

I was recently asked some interesting questions by a composer I’ve been helping, and it struck me that the answers might have wider applicability beyond his circumstances. He’s been re-working a song that he originally wrote for classroom use into a more developed and sophisticated arrangement for vocal ensemble and band, and our conversations have hitherto been about things like crafting form through texture, harmonic voicing, and vocal writing.

Now these technical questions are getting more fully under control, he’s turning his attention to the real-life question of what kind of groups might want to take it on to perform it. He has been advised that it could easily be marketed to schools if he pared it down to a unison setting – which he already knows of course because that’s where the song has already been road-tested. But his personal aims in returning to composing after some time away has been to be more ambitious than this, both technically and artistically.

Reconnecting with the Rhubarbs

rhubarbsfeb20

After my evening of quartet coaching, I spent all of Saturday and until early afternoon Sunday with The Rhubarbs, the chorus from which Note-4-Note had originally formed. Two of the singers are still with the chorus, and there was a strong continuity of culture between the two ensembles. In particular the sense of everyone taking individual responsibility for her own voice, and the use of a common gestural vocabulary for musical thought was a shared strength.

Striking in both was also the capacity to keep applying a concept or technique once learned: there was still the need for periodic reminders (they are much like other human beings like this), but you could also see people continuing to work with the ideas between mentions. One of the advantages of a culture of using gesture to think is that not only I can see what people are working on, but they constantly reinforce things for each other too.

Coaching Note-4-Note

note-4-noteI spent my last evening as a citizen of the European Union in Bonn working with Note-4-Note quartet. I can highly recommend this as an experience as we could all get thoroughly immersed in the music and forget all the nonsense going on in the public sphere. Also, they are lovely people to work with. (Mind you, I say that a lot – maybe I only get booked by people who have figured out we’ll be compatible!)

They have been together for about three years now, and it was clear in the way they approached their warm-up that they were used to working together. There was a sense both of each singer taking responsibility for her own voice and vocal development, and of a coordinated approach to how to do this. They are very physically engaged as they sing, in the sense of keep the whole body flexible and connected to the vocal mechanism, and also in the sense of using gesture freely to aid their thought processes about both vocalising and musical shape.

8-Parter Project: Thoughts on Balance and Voicing

Having walked through the differences in range and characteristic vocal behaviours of the respective singers SSAATTBB versus M&F quartet textures, it is time to consider the implications for how we combine them into harmony. This is the bit where I’m finding, so far, the greatest tension between the idea of two discrete ensembles in combination and a single, 8-part texture.

First, a basic principle of voicing. Generally, you want the notes lower down in the chord to be spaced wider apart than those higher up in the chord. This is true not just of a cappella writing, but tonal music in general: having spent my formative years as a pianist, my left hand is actually bigger than my right, due to having perpetually to reach wider spans with it.

This is both relative and absolute. In both male and female barbershop textures, you’ll generally have the tenor tucked in tighter to the top of the chord, and the bass a bit further away in open voicings, and you’ll tend to avoid closed voicings in lower tessituras.

On Connecting with the Real

Last autumn, shortly after I’d blogged about the research stream at the abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I received an email from a reader about the diagram I had included from Michael Bonshor’s paper about the relationship between practice and research. I like everything about it so will quote in full:

It was very affirming to see that little diagram on your blog this evening.

I've been working for seven years as supply staff for a small, private children's nursery. Lots of frustrations, wondering how things could be done better. Meanwhile reading your blog makes me feel that I still have a functional brain when there is little other evidence. Thank you!

Now I'm about to embark on a Masters in Childhood and Youth Studies. I think they need more academics who have done the 7.30am starts and 6pm finishes, coming home covered in yoghurt and playdough to fall asleep during The Archers.

Hoping I might eventually complete that circle, help some people, change something for the better. (I sing a bit too)

The Telfordaires Feedback Protocol

This post started out as a document to share with participants on the Telfordaires’ Learn to Sing in Harmony Course, which runs until mid-February 2020. When I was trying to decide whether to distribute it as an attachment to our weekly email of follow-up resources or as a link to a shared drive where we have some other learning materials, I realised that in fact a link to a blog post would be easier than either. And there’s nothing here that we don’t mind sharing with the rest of the singing world, so why not be generous with our ideas?

During the rehearsal process, we like to make opportunities for singers to listen all or part of the chorus and give feedback on what they've heard. One situation for this is the activity from Week 3 of the course we call 'voicework', where we break down the music into individual sections and duets to focus on how people are using their voices. Another is coming up in Week 4, where we'll use internal coaches to rehearse the whole group singing together. (‘Internal coaches’ are coaches from within the chorus, as opposed to bringing in external experts to coach us as we do a couple of times a year.)

In all cases, the idea of sharing round the opportunity to give feedback is that every person who participates in singing harmony comes with a lifetime’s experience and insight from their enjoyment of music, and these responses can help us all grow as musicians and performers. You learn different things by standing out and thinking about what the music needs than you do from inside it singing, and we all learn different things from hearing different people's perspectives.

8-Parter Project: The Nature of the Ensemble

So, having thought about how different types of song persona play out in a mixed 8-part ensemble, it is time to think about the nature of that ensemble, in the first instance with a single-persona song. The process of revisiting my chart of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ from 2008 (coming soon to Sheet Music Plus) has got me reflecting on how an SSAATTBB group (or SATB divisi as it turns out easier to say in conversation) is quite a different animal from combined male and female barbershop ensembles, whether quartet or chorus.

Back in 2008 I was clearly thinking about SSAATTBB for this chart, and it is interesting to see how certain decisions I made back then signal it very clearly. In the process of revising it, I have deliberately chosen to recraft for combined barbershop groups, and this post articulates some of the ways in which the two formats of 8-part group differ. A later post will go on to reflect on balance and voicing.

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