A Cappella

Less is More with The Venus Effect

I didn't get a pic, so here's one of theirsI didn't get a pic, so here's one of theirsTuesday evening brought my friends The Venus Effect to me by Skype for a coaching session on the new arrangement of mine they’ll be bringing to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in October. As I’ve observed before, this mode of coaching is somewhat different from the face-to-face experience, but still offers opportunities to get loads done.

The thing you might be worried about – sound quality – is to my mind less of an issue; after all, the 78prm record offered valid and artistic musical experiences. I notice more that the potential for inhabitance is impaired – the slight time delay means you can’t fully coordinate with the quartet, either gesturally or vocally. So the experience is more arms-length, giving instructions to be acted on, rather than being in the music with them. Still, since we couldn’t find a time in the diary we could all be in the same room together, Skype coaching is infinitely more useful than no coaching.

Inclusiveness at HU 2018: Next Thoughts

Halo on the Saturday Night showHalo on the Saturday Night showI told you that this theme would recur in my reflections on Harmony University. Not sure as I start to write this one whether I’ve got one or two more posts-worth of notes, but we’ll find out as we go.

One major event that you can’t write about Inclusivity at HU2018 without discussing was the Monday evening elective convened by Chris Rimple. The combined training material he has developed to help barbershop chapters become more inclusive with a panel discussion (and, ultimately, a whole-room discussion) on the kinds of behaviour people have experienced in both their barbershop careers and outside lives that have left them feeling excluded (and/or enraged – some examples were shocking).

The Deke Sharon Keynote: A Masterclass in 'Yes, But'

Continuing my reflections on Harmony University, Deke Sharon’s keynote address is going to take a post of its own, and probably quite a long one at that. Which is entirely how it should be – his job as keynote speaker is to get people thinking, and he succeeded in starting conversations that went on all week.

His theme was ‘Divergent paths’: reflecting on the way that organised barbershop separated off from the Black vocal harmony traditions the genre had once been part of, and using examples from continuing African American traditions to imagine how barbershop might have turned out if it had not spent so much of the past 80 years as a segregated genre. This is a fabulous thought experiment through which to consider the history of vocal harmony genres, though on reflection I am starting to suspect it was also the root of many of the ‘yes, buts…’ that emerged in response.

The Barbershop Harmony Society and Culture Change: Impressions from HU 2018

Harmony University 2018 facultyHarmony University 2018 faculty

I am just back from a week teaching at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Harmony University, and I am sure nobody will be surprised to know I come home with a full notebook. Indeed, I had collected a goodly collection of notes before the event had even started, as they had me travel out early to take advantage of cheaper airfares, and so I arrived as the previous event on the campus, a leadership summit, was finishing. I thus had the chance to chat with the organisation’s staff and administrative leaders to get a picture of how life is on the ground at the moment in the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Ensemble Singing and the Illusion of Oneness

The Composer’s Voice by Edward Cone is a classic of music theory that, though flawed in many ways (as all startlingly innovative theories are), still fuels my thinking about music meaning and its illusions 25 years after I first read it. One of the flaws is how misleading the title is, since the book breaks out of the dominant post-Romantic cliché of music being all about the composer’s message to the listener, and gives a way to hear instead the virtual voices the composer has created.

The key concept he introduces is that of musical personae: virtual characters emerging from the music, whose story the music tells. There are all kinds of interesting questions this raises in instrumental music – how you identify personae, how you interpret the narratives – but his starting point is the simpler case of song. When you have lyrics to sing, it is clear that you are representing a character, a fictional being at a certain point in a story, and the clues as to your backstory and setting can be found in both the words and the musical setting.

LABBS Directors Weekend 2018

dirwe18

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

FRjun18

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.

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