A Cappella

Arranging Update: Opening Up for Commissions

From today I am available again for arrangement commissions! Thank you for your patience while I took time out to do some learning and experimenting. As I’ve explained to the various people who have enquired since I stopped taking new commissions back in October so I could work my way through those I’d already committed to and create some space for my own project, I didn’t keep a waiting list in the interim. Experience has told me that if you queue people up too many months in advance, by the time you get to them, their needs have changed anyway.

So, I won’t assume that you’re still looking at the songs you were talking about earlier in the year, and am starting from a blank slate. As is my usual practice, I slot people in basically in the order that the commissions are confirmed (including, if applicable, evidence of the necessary permissions), though jiggling about a bit to take into account the timescales different groups are working to.

It will be interesting to see what it’s like going back to 4-part writing after 6 months focused exclusively on 8-parters. Though of course, if you’d like to commission an 8-parter, I’m better at it now that than I was 6 months ago :-)

Blue Sky thinking with Mayflower A Cappella

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My last couple of coaching visits have been to help out on new, recently commissioned arrangements. Monday evening was a development on this theme, with an invitation to visit the Mayflower A Cappella Chorus in Plymouth to talk about my arrangement of Mr Blue Sky, which they are currently learning.

This was an interesting challenge as instead of dealing with a chart that was relatively fresh in memory, it involved revisiting music I had written 9 full years ago. What could I remember from my past self’s experience of working on this music? What did I see in it looking at it with fresh eyes?

Facsinating Melody

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They say that if you lose one of your senses, your others increase in acuity to compensate: you become better at hearing if you lose your sight, for instance. It has seemed to me that as remote rehearsing strips out our capacity to operate harmonically, our awareness and appreciation of melody has blossomed to fill the aesthetic gap.

To be fair, I was always a sucker for a good tune, and had I been able to go and work with Fascinating Rhythm in person on Thursday, we probably would have spent a lot of our time thinking about melody anyway, given the character of the music we were dealing with . But I was particularly glad that the song they had asked me to arrange for them last autumn* that we explored together is so profoundly melodic, as it gives them the opportunity to reach much of what the heart of the music is about, even while they are stuck in their Zoom rooms.

Directors Connecting

dirday2020Saturday 13 June was supposed to have been the day when directors of LABBS choruses convened from around the country in Coventry for our annual training event. Instead, we met online. On the bright side, it meant that costs for both individuals and organisation were negligible, and notwithstanding all the drawbacks of the medium, it was wonderful to get everyone together. It is wonderfully supportive community.

Inevitably, the shape of the event had to change. Instead of a whole day, we shortened it to an afternoon in recognition of the obstacles to focus and engagement on Zoom. And the practical training model I was so looking forward to sharing, involving small groups working on the intimate connection between gesture and sound, will necessarily have to wait until we can get into a room together once again to make that connection.

On the Power of Boo

In the wake of events in the US over the past week or two, I have seen friends making comments along the lines of: I hate that this is happening and I feel helpless because I don’t see what I can do to help. In the spirit of Justin Trudeau’s point that the best response is to put our own house in order, I’d like to share with my barbershop friends a point made by the inimitable Elizabeth Davies.

Those of you who have been following the #donewithdixe debates will know her landmark blog post articulating the reasons why a genre with barbershop’s history of appropriation and exclusion needs to leave a significant chunk of its C20th repertoire in the past if it is to aspire to be the kind of inclusive community it claims to be.

Soapbox: Allocating Parts for Emotional Damage

soapboxIn SATB music, it’s relatively easy figure out which part people should sing if they don’t already know. The texture is built around a divide by sex, with a split between higher and lower voices in each. So you just see what kind of range someone has, and slot them in where the notes they have and the notes the music needs coincide. Some people (counter-tenors, female tenors) defy the first part, but the stratification by range still works, so the model as a whole presents safe a generalisation of how to go about things.

One of the defining characteristics of barbershop music is that the parts are all much less differentiated by range (there’s a clue in the description ‘close-harmony’). Thus, most people can readily sing at least two of the parts, usually three, sometimes all four. You’d think this would take some of the pressure off the decision-making process of part-allocation, but in fact it seems more often to intensify the reliance on social stereotyping in identifying parts.

8-Parter Project: Reflections on Process

All of a sudden I find myself over halfway through the time I set aside for my project to explore arranging in eight parts. In some ways it feels like I have hardly started – it’s not fair that the time should have passed so quickly! – but then I also notice that I have completed 4 arrangements from scratch, reworked an older one, and have a small collection of sketches and part-done trials, at least one of which I intend to return to and finish. So things seem to have been moving.

In the last month of course I have been in a state of almost continual distraction as life has reconfigured itself around a global pandemic. When we stopped going out to do things with other people, we imagined that would give us all extra time to get on with our other projects. But it turns out that having to rethink all your automated habits takes a huge amount of cognitive capacity, never mind the work involved in taking rehearsals online. And the anxiety.

A Virtual Visit to Ocean City

In place of my usual warm-up pics, a screen-grab...In place of my usual warm-up pics, a screen-grab...

It’s a good 3-4 hours by train to Plymouth, so previous visits in that direction have usually been for a whole weekend, sometimes taking in multiple ensembles in the South-West en route. Tuesday evening I popped down for an hour or so, in one of the silver linings of taking rehearsals online. Ocean City Sound had warmed up before I arrived, and continued their evening after I had left – including, I understand, welcoming another visitor, this time BABS Chair Martin Bagelow.

We divided the hour into three sets of activities, aiming to maximise engagement. When you’re all together in a room together, the context binds you together and the novelty of a visiting coach sharpens the concentration. When you’re all logging in from your own homes it takes a lot more cognitive input to stay connected with the virtual activity, so there’s much more need to be structured about it and to refresh attention with changes of task.

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