A Cappella

Team-coaching with Fascinating Rhythm

Riser-top view of the team in actionRiser-top view of the team in actionRegular readers will know by now that Fascinating Rhythm have been leading the way amongst British barbershop choruses by bringing newly commissioned music to the contest stage every year since 2015. Last weekend was their annual retreat at which they got their teeth into their 5th consecutive new package, and for the first time they decided to invite me to coach for a day alongside their regular coach Sally McLean rather than bring us in separately as they have hitherto.

I was going to say that fortunately their regular coach and their regular arranger have very compatible approaches to music and performance, but that makes it sound like it’s luck or coincidence. Thinking about it, though, it would be more surprising if they chose people to work with regularly who had incongruent artistic attitudes.

Aurora Revisited

We forgot to take a selfie so Helen spliced us together afterwards...We forgot to take a selfie so Helen spliced us together afterwards...Last Sunday afternoon brought Aurora quartet back for more coaching, to follow up the session we had back in March. They had clearly been working diligently since last time there were here, and it was most cheering to be able to tell them how readily apparent the improvement was to someone who hadn’t heard them in the interim.

Of course one always intends for rehearsals to be making things better, but when you are in the thick of it you can’t always tell whether your incremental changes are adding up. So it's useful to hear from someone who only hears you intermittently.

They came in with a helpfully specific list of things they wanted help with - pacing the intro to one song, trouble-shooting some unusual chords in another – which, almost more than the greater consistency of sound, signalled that they are now taking more control over their development.

Building the Arc with Bristol A Cappella

The warm-up is going swimmingly...The warm-up is going swimmingly...On Saturday I went down to help Bristol A Cappella with their preparation for the mixed chorus context at the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention later this month. They were going to be working with Performance specialist Kirsty Williams on Sunday, so I could focus on musical and vocal issues, knowing that she would bring their focus back out onto their audience the next day.

(Of course I find it hard to talk about an interesting chord without considering what it will do to a listener, and there were places where choreography could conveniently be leveraged to help vocal technique. But the generalisation stands that there were things I could safely put to one side knowing that Kirsty would have them in her sights the next day.)

LABBS Harmony College 2019

Arty long-shot of our central themeArty long-shot of our central themeEvery so often, the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers replaces its usual programme of regional education days and training events for chorus directors and quartets with a single grand shindig. The last Harmony College took place in 2016, to celebrate the organisation’s 40th birthday, and it was so well received that it was decided to programme them into the events cycle every three years.

Hence, 330 of us – mostly but not exclusively LABBS members – gathered together at Nottingham University last weekend. This was a significantly larger number than three years ago (to the extent that the organisation kept having to go back to the university to get more bedrooms allocated), so I don’t see Harmony College losing its place in the cycle any time soon.

Atomic Quartet Coaching

AtomicI spent Monday afternoon until mid-afternoon on Tuesday with Atomic Quartet, who had come up from Cornwall for an intensive bout of coaching both as quartet and as individual singers. They had initially suggested doing PVIs (‘personal voice instruction’ for those unfamiliar with the acronym) on the Monday, followed by quartet coaching the next day, but I inflected this model into a more flexible approach that shifted between individual and ensemble work more fluidly.

I remembered the way that Rivka Golani taught viola at the Birmingham Conservatoire. All her students were entitled to a certain number of hours of one-to-one tuition as part of their course, but rather than seeing them one at a time, she used to have all of them together for one day a week, observing as she worked with each in turn. Her students spoke very positively of this experience, and I observed strong bonds of trust between them.

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.

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