A Cappella

LABBS Directors Weekend 2018

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I sometimes wonder if the Ronseal approach* to naming the directors’ events we run for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers underplays their sheer wonderfulness. But there’s something grounding in the balance. Just as an elevated conducting gesture really needs to be accompanied by a something that connects with the core/lower body to maintain the equilibrium of the voices, so the greater the extravaganza, the more it benefits from a matter-of-fact title.

For it was an extravaganza. We had practical work for all 50+ delegates, nurtured by our standing directors faculty; we had a rich and varied programme of electives led by 13 of our association’s most successful directors; we had the services of Cheshire Chord Company one day to explore a brand new arrangement being put together for the first time and a Volunteer Chorus the next, representing 60+ music team members and aspiring musical leaders who lent their voices in exchange for the learning experience.

Fascinating Rhythm and New Music

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On a glorious sunny Thursday evening, you could have had a really fun evening in Bristol watching the England and New Zealand women’s cricket teams play a 20-20 match. Or, you could have gone just a little north of the city as I did and had a fabulous evening making music with a different set of skilled and dedicated women.

Fascinating Rhythm are preparing to bring a package of two newly-commissioned arrangements to the LABBS Convention in the autumn for the fourth consecutive year. Yes, you read that right: we were working on the 7th and 8th new arrangements that they will be bringing to the contest stage since 2015. Up-for-itness doesn’t even being to describe their attitude.

Coaching the Chordettes

Warm-up action shot: shared rhythmWarm-up action shot: shared rhythm

Saturday took me down to Devon to coach the Chordettes. Last time I worked with them I drove down there in my Vauxhall Corsa, and I replaced that car in early 2005, so it’s been a while. I can still remember the laugh we had about post-vocalic Rs, though, such being the kind of thing that stays with you forever.

Most of our work for the day was on the material they are preparing for LABBS Convention in October, including a ballad that I’ve not previously heard on the LABBS contest stage. I’ve not heard every contest performance of the last 20 years, but I’ve heard a reasonably high proportion, so even if it’s not a premiere I can confidently say it’s rare enough to be worth listening out for.

BABS Convention 2018

Momentum Chorus: photo credit - BABSMomentum Chorus: photo credit - BABS

The three major talking points for the final weekend in May this year were the Ireland’s repeal of the 8th amendment, Momentum’s astonishing performance in the mixed barbershop chorus contest, and the glitzy yet ill-designed refurbishment of the toilets in Harrogate International Centre. Of the three, only the second is strictly relevant for this blog, and the other two I’m sure are covered more thoroughly elsewhere anyway.

If you’ve seen the contest scores, you’ll already know that Momentum’s performance was better than anything we saw in the World Mixed Voice competition in Munich the previous month, though in my view the scores don’t show quite how much better. I’d like to hear them in a head-to-head with Heavy Medal, as I think they could give them a run for their money.

Shaping Lines with Silver Lining

Action shot from the warm-upAction shot from the warm-up

To complete my hat trick of coaching adventures last weekend, I headed off to Coventry on Sunday to work with Silver Lining. They are also preparing new music for LABBS Convention in the autumn, but this time I had the pleasure of getting my teeth into other people’s arrangements. It’s fun coaching my own charts, but you learn different things working with music that comes from someone else’s perspective and experience.

Their new ballad is one of those songs that looks simple on paper: a clear arc of melody without tricksy stuff, supported by intuitive harmonies and no more embellishment than is needed. In practice, this places considerable demands on both the breath and the interpretive mind to sustain the phrases - there is absolutely nowhere to hide. Fortunately, the technical dimension was well in hand, allowing us to focus on the artistic challenges.

Keeping Time with Signature

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The Saturday after my evening with the Venus Effect, I stayed down south to spend the day with Signature, working with them again on the package including an arrangement of mine they’ll be bringing to contest in the autumn. They had helpfully primed me with specific areas of focus: setting, maintaining, and transitioning between tempi, and using vocal colour to tell the story. If you think that sounds like a fine way to spend a Saturday, you would be right.

I last saw Signature in January (our planned March session having been inconveniently snowed off) and it was very striking how much progress they had made in the interim. The chorus were perhaps less aware of this – after all, they have experienced the improvement incrementally on a week-to-week basis, rather than hearing it all at once. It is always comforting to know that the rehearsal process has been making a difference.

Exploring New Music with the Venus Effect

VEmay18Friday evening took me down to have another session with the Venus Effect. We were continuing our work on building the quartet sound, but had the fun of doing this in the context of a new song I’ve arranged for them. It’s always exciting when someone brings a new song to the barbershop contest stage, but even more so when it’s a song written this century. It won’t be ready for Prelims next month, but keep your ears open for it come LABBS Convention in October.

We approached the harmonic dimension of the work via duetting as a means to glue the parts together. It’s interesting to note how this offers different insights with music in the early stages of development than it does with more familiar music. As a method for refining well-known music, it focuses the ears on execution – matching of vowel and tone colour, balance, and details of articulation. With new music, it reveals more about the musical structure, and the relationship between the parts. In particular, a series of inner phnerts between lead and baritone emerged as a key element giving energy and sparkle to the texture.

Swinging with Norwich Harmony

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I spent Saturday working with my friends at Norwich Harmony. Most of our attention was on rhythm in their latest addition to their contest repertoire, with harmonic interludes to vary the musical diet.

We had two main priorities in working with swing rhythms. One was getting the backbeat framework consistently in place, with the main pulses on 2 & 4. As with many a cappella swing tunes, sometimes the surface rhythm facilitated this, but there were also quite straight-looking rhythms that nonetheless needed enlivening by the overall swing flavour.

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