Carving Out an Interpretation with Red Rock Harmony

This shot just gives an inkling of the amazing rehearsal venueThis shot just gives an inkling of the amazing rehearsal venue

After my coaching sessions last week with Strictly A Cappella and Frisson, I headed down to Devon to work with my friends at Red Rock Harmony in Teignmouth. One of the things that is pleasing about repeat visits to a group is to hear how they have improved since you last heard them, and it was lovely to be able to remark on how much more vocally secure they are sounding than last autumn. And this was my third day in a row of groups with pitch integrity. It is a wonderful thing when you can trust the technique and just get on with the music.

For music was our task. The chorus are in the process of learning one of my arrangements, commissioned by another group a couple of years back, but as Red Rock Harmony have joined LABBS since its one and only previous contest performance, they are approaching it as if a brand new chart. My job was to work with them on the delivery, finding the fluidity flow of a barbershop ballad within the black-and-white dots on the page.

Friday Morning Frisson

FrissonThe morning after my evening with Strictly A Cappella, I had the opportunity to work with a mixed quartet from within the group called Frisson. The morning was fresher than the night before, so maybe one shouldn’t be so impressed to encounter as good an integrity of pitch in the sub-group as in the main ensemble, but it would seem churlish not to mention it.

One of the things that this tonal reliability facilitates is the capacity to drop into songs at (almost) any point, and focus your attention on just that bit you want to work on without a distracting run-up to it. There’s just much less cognitive overhead in finding your place if you share an implicit trust in where your tonal centre is rather than having to listen out for it and adjust to it anew each time you start to sing.

Strictly A Cappella

StrictlyI spent a hot and sticky Thursday night down in Radlett with Strictly A Cappella. We were working on bringing out the musical detail in a pleasantly varied range of songs – from Queen, to Duke Ellington, from Diana Ross to gospel. The heat and the closeness of the atmosphere make it all the more impressive to note that this is an ensemble that maintained absolute integrity of tonal centre all evening.

Their rehearsal room is quite small and quite lively, which for many vocal/choral genres can be dangerous – the risk is that people will get used to making a large resonant sound with the help of the walls and ceiling rather than with their own singing technique. But for a moderately large contemporary a cappella group like this, it actually makes their job harder. Much of their music benefits from quite intricate textures, and singing it in a space like that forces everyone to work much harder a keeping it clean and tight, so you don’t lose all the detail in the wash of sound.

On Singing All the Lines

It was almost 7 years ago when I wrote in detail about Making Parts into Lines. At the time I had just been working on the Mary Poppins set for Cottontown Chorus, and it remains a landmark moment in my development as an arranger. Not just because this was the first time any of my arrangements had won a contest gold, but because the process of working through the technical and artistic detail gave me musical insights that have informed my work ever since.

This was also the place where I first articulated the performer’s two roles – as Manager and Communicator – which have become very useful concepts in my coaching as well as my arranging.

Diversity, Revisionism and the Pitfalls of Ambition: A Barbershop Case Study

Music history, like any history, isn’t a neutral portrayal of the past, but the result of a value-laden selection process. Somebody decides what counts as salient historical fact worthy to be included in the narrative.

Revisionist history comes about when someone notices that the choices underlying the narratives we have inherited about our pasts no longer chime well with the values with which we aspire to live our presents. They then go and dig out information about people and events that had hitherto been omitted, and they re-interpret those already included, sometimes finding quite different meanings in them.

Playlist 2017: 5th Commentary

Time for another commentary on my growing 2017's Playlist. Background to the project can be found here.

  • Ruth Crawford Seeger, Suite No 2 for Four Stringed Instruments and Piano (1929). What I love about this music is the way it is both completely post-tonal and intensely melodic. The part of me that enjoys technical control can marvel at the intellectual integrity of it all, or it can let go and just let the lines pull my imagination in.
  • Pauline Oliveros, Bye Bye Butterfly (1967). Oliveros is one of those composers who work I’ve always felt I should know better than I do. Listening to this brings home why.

The Choral Director’s Golden Triangle

Director's Triangle

There’s a useful concept in project management of the Golden Triangle. It is formed by three aspects of any project: Scope (how much it covers), Time (how long it will take to complete), and Resource (both human and physical – what you need to complete it, and therefore how much it will cost).

The point of the triangle is that your plan will quantify all three, but in practice you will probably only be able to control two of them. So, when real life inevitably starts to depart from what you’d planned (inevitably because projects are by definition things you don’t do regularly so inherently subject to unforeseen circumstances), one or other of these three is going to slip.

Preparing for Llangollen with Affinity Show Choir

The obligatory warm-up shot...The obligatory warm-up shot...

Sunday took me up to Stockport to help Affinity Show Choir in their preparations for the Llangollen Interntational Eisteddfod next month. (After all these years, I still take a couple of attempts to figure out where the double d goes.) They are stretching themselves by entering two quite different choral classes, one in which they can showcase their usual diet of a cappella and barbershop repertoire, and another which takes them into more classical choral territory.

This is a great plan, from several perspectives. From a choir development perspective, it gives a purpose and structure to a project to learn music you might not otherwise engage with, offering a defined performance occasion which offers feedback and the opportunity to hear the performances of others who sing this same kind of music. From a sense-of-occasion perspective, it makes more use of the time and expense of the trip and makes you feel you’ve participated fully in the event, not just popped in for a visit.

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