A Cappella

Building the Toolkit with Aurora Quartet

aurora

Last Sunday brought Aurora Quartet round for an afternoon’s coaching. They are a recently formed quartet, two of whom have little prior quartetting experience, so whilst the content of our work revolved around two of their songs, our attention was firmly on providing techniques and rehearsal tactics they could use to continue their development beyond the coaching session.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to know that duetting featured prominently here, and worked its usual magic. Indeed, it was in this context that previous experience showed most clearly, by producing the most clearly articulated observations on what they had been listening to. Honing the listening skills isn’t just about the ears, it’s about working out what the ears have just perceived, and the duetting process gives a structured environment in which to develop this skill, at the same time as cleaning up the quartet’s performance.

Eclectic Quartet Coaching

I'm using their pic because it's better than the one I tookI'm using their pic because it's better than the one I tookI spent Saturday afternoon working with The Eclectic Quartet, who are preparing for their first BABS Quartet semi-final together, having qualified for Convention at Prelims back in November. They bring a good deal of flexibility and musicianship to their singing, with a readiness to drop into a song at any point, which made our work pleasantly efficient.

We gave most of our attention to developing the musical shape of their two newest songs, paying attention to both local details and building the overall arc. One of the challenges of a style that uses only four voices in a predominantly homophonic texture is that the resources for developing musical architecture and contrast are inherently more limited than, say, an orchestra, or even a piano. But within that sound world, even with its restrictions of range, timbre and texture, you can achieve a satisfying range of expression if you have a canny arranger and are alert to the signals they give you. The arrangers of both their charts can be very canny in this way, so we had plenty to work with.

Expressive Modes and Musical Shape

exprmodesWhen coaching a cappella groups, I’ll often point out a basic distinction build into popular a cappella styles that encodes information about how the music is communicating. When only one part is singing the words, with the others accompanying, the intent is usually narrative, telling a story. When all parts are singing the same words (and this usually implies at the same time – homorhythmic or nearly so), the intent is usually declarative, making a statement.

Of course, there are intermediate states - accompanied duet, or trio plus neutral bass-line for instance – but they slot in quite happily on this continuum between the more discursive and the more emphatic.

On the Prosody of Twiddles

Okay, so this one is pretty niche, and delves into some nitty-gritty. But it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about just recently, so I’m going to share anyway. If you can’t be doing with the detail, you can always go back and have a bit of a laugh at the comments on my post on mansplaining instead.

twiddles

If you play the piano, you will know that of the three following motifs, (a) and (b) are easier to play than (c). There’s a bit of a knack to rapid repeated notes, but once you’ve got it, you’re sorted, whilst adjacent notes are always relatively straightforward because you can use adjacent fingers and don’t need to change your hand or arm position. Mixing the two, though, requires you to switch between the two techniques mid-twiddle, incurring a disproportionately high cognitive overhead for the duration of the material.

On Shifting Keys

Today’s reflections were sparked by a message from a friend asking the following question:

Question, how do you feel as an arranger, singer, and/or multi-genre musician about the practice of habitually shifting the keys of songs? One of my quartets casually shifts many songs up a tone or more as if it's nothing (including with little notice), and it's putting strain on me both vocally and conceptually. It's alright if the song is simple, but if there are mucho chromatics I have to perform integral calculus as I go, and it breaks my music memory. Can I put my foot down or am I being unreasonable?

It’s a good one, isn’t it? My immediate response was that there needs to be some sort of negotiation here – just because a different key is good for one or two voices, doesn’t make it good for all. And that if they are habitually picking arrangements that comfortably accommodate either low or high voices, but not both at once, they need to have a bit of a think about how they are going about this.

On the Liberalising of the Barbershop Style

One of the things that has happened in the five years since I stopped being a barbershop Music judge is that there has been a deliberate policy to frame both the category description and the way it is used in practice in ways that will encourage more new music. And you’d have to say it has been largely successful. We are hearing a much wider variety of songs in contest than we used to.

In part this has been about loosening rules so they express what is best practice rather than a ‘do-this-or-else’ approach. So, for example, the chord vocabulary is now presented in a hierarchy of ringability, rather than with the distinctions between chords that are allowed, those allowed under certain circumstances, and those not allowed. All chords are allowed, but if you want to score well, keep using lots of major triads and barbershop (dominant-type) 7ths as they are the most barbershoppy.

Exploring Compensating Rubato with LaBOOM

Action screen-shotAction screen-shot

Saturday took my musical attention back to Munich, though my body stayed at home. The amenity of Skype allowed me to spend a couple of hours with LaBOOM quartet working on two new songs I arranged for them back in the autumn. They quite sensibly wanted to get this session done early in the learning process, to shape the overall concept of the songs before they’d got too settled in their habits with them.

The most challenging area we tackled during the session was getting a feel for compensating rubato. Their ballad is in a gentle ¾ time, and they had been feeling as quite strongly waltz-like. Our task was to ease this framework up into something slightly more flexible without spoiling the sense of poetic metre or the lilt that the time signature provided.

Soapbox: On Possessive Lyrics

soapboxThere’s a moment in The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when Slatribartfast asks Arthur, ‘Is that your robot?’

‘No,’ says Marvin, ‘I’m mine.’

This scene comes to mind every time I hear a barbershop tag that finishes a love song with the information that the beloved is now, ‘Mine, all mine’. However much sympathy I have had for the sentiments expressed up to that point (which is often quite a lot; I’m a soppy old soul despite my misanthropic appearance), it largely evaporates in the face of this blatant possessiveness.

You can’t own the person you love most in the world. Even once they have decided to team up with you so you can build a life together, they are still their own person with their own preferences and opinions and needs and – most importantly – the right to determine their own destiny. Asserting that they are all yours doesn’t make you sound romantic, it makes you sound like Monty Burns gloating over a pile of gold.

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