A Cappella

Peer Learning with Holland Harmony

The weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest SingersThe weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest Singers

My trip to the Netherlands was precipitated by an invitation to serve on the faculty for an education weekend for Holland Harmony's quartets and musical leaders. It was thus a smaller event, in terms of numbers, than last year’s Harmony College, but it was commensurately more focused. Once again we had an all-star international faculty, delivering a programme of workshops that made all of us wish we had time to go and hear each other’s offerings.

As usual after this kind of intensive weekend, I have a notebook-full of thoughts and reflections stimulated by the experience, some of which will work their way into blog posts over the coming weeks and months as I process them. In the first instance, though, it’s the nature of learning experience itself, rather than the musical content of that learning, that holds my attention.

From Dutch Pride to Route Sixteen

dutchpride
Route16
I am just back from a full-on week of barbershop adventures in the Netherlands – an education weekend for Holland Harmony, framed by three coaching visits. There will be plenty to be blogged about as I process the experiences, so for today I am combining reports of my first two days’ coaching, with Dutch Pride in IJsselstein and Route Sixteen in Dordrecht.

Coaching sessions always cover far more musical details and technical achievements than you could possibly write about in a blog post, and I sometimes come out wondering what should be the focus of a coaching report. On Wednesday night, though, my brain woke me up in the middle of the night to inform me that I should write about a conversation we had about pitch retention after a key change. I have learned that I need to accept my brain’s suggestions if I hope to get any more sleep, so here goes.

Coaching The Chaos Theory

The Chaos Theory, with Floddy the HippoThe Chaos Theory, with Floddy the HippoSunday brought the delightfully-named quartet The Chaos Theory to Birmingham for a day’s coaching. Like several of the groups I am seeing in September, they’re preparing for the LABBS/European Convention in Bournemouth next month, and what looks set to be a tightly-contested (and thus – speaking as an audience member – very enjoyable) quartet contest.

Given the point in the performance-preparation cycle, we were focusing on similar themes to other groups aiming for that event – moving beyond the technical into artistry.

One of the things that most struck me when I was new to barbershop was the astonishing stylistic consistency of contest material – and of course that was one of the points of contest-grade barbershop, to preserve and specialise in certain stylistic thumbprints. The downside of this consistency is the risk that it all starts to sound much the same. The upside is that when an arranger who understands that harmonic language in great depth works with a song that defies those expectations, you can find yourself with a musical narrative that has immense power to engage that specialist audience.

Refining Delivery with Red Rock Harmony

Enjoying the power of the Power PoseEnjoying the power of the Power PoseSaturday took me to Teignmouth to work with my friends from Red Rock Harmony on the songs they are preparing for next months LABBS/European Convention in Bournemouth in Bournemouth. This included the ballad I had worked on intensively during my last visit in July, plus an up-tempo number. With six weeks to go the focus was on refining performances from both technical and artistic perspectives, and on getting the handover from Manager to Communicator well underway.

One theme we explored was the distinction between local and global shaping, between the nuances of delivery within the phrase, and the sculpting of the various expressive worlds at different stages of a song’s form. The chorus was already producing the former intuitively as they responded to lyric and melody, but they needed more of a large-scale structure for these to work within.

Strictly Frisson

Strictlysep17I’m amalgamating my write-ups of Thursday evening’s and Friday morning’s coaching sessions because I’m just coming into a bit of a busy patch, and if I blogged about each of September’s adventures separately I might not catch up with myself until November! And it makes a certain amount of sense to consider my visits to Strictly A Cappella and Frisson together, since all of the latter are members of the former, and we found ourselves dealing with some overlapping themes between the two sessions.

Readers with good memories may remember that I worked with both these ensembles back in July. (And, totally coincidentally, that trip also continued on down to Devon to work with Red Rock chorus – but more of that anon.) And two months is long enough to hear a difference in a group that has been working on consolidating the work done in a previous coaching session.

Choosing Repertoire in the Era of Post-Dixie Barbershop

The discussions about how and to what extent barbershop as a genre and as a community moves away from repertoire that glorifies the Old South is ongoing, and likely to continue for some time. This post is about the more practical question of working out which of the songs in the established barbershop repertoire are likely to be problematic.

I’m assuming that it’s mostly people outside the US who need to walk through this. We have imported a genre, and through mastering its craft have allied ourselves with a worldwide family with whom we identify and share emotional, cognitive and visceral patterns of being. But the repertoire we have imported along with these ways of being doesn’t always bring all of its meanings with it.

Expressive GraceNotes

The obligatory warm-up picThe obligatory warm-up pic

I spent Saturday with my friends at the chorus formerly known as Brunel Harmony, working with them on their songs for the LABBS/European Convention next month. Since I last saw them, they have not only acquired their new chorus name, GraceNotes, but have established considerably more control over their consistency of technique. Our task was thus to marry vocal craft and choreography back to meaning to free them up to express the songs.

The primary vocal element that needed focused attention was reasserting control over breath points. There was a clear plan in place, but the extra cognitive load of adding choreography had resulted in extraneous breaths creeping in. The problem wasn’t that the singers couldn’t sustain the phrases (with perhaps one exception discussed below), but that the part of the brain that would remember when to breathe was too busy remembering the moves.

Improvising with Moseley Folk

View from down to the main stagesView from down to the main stages

Actually, I was improvising with folk from all over, including some local to Moseley, in a workshop at Moseley Folk Festival on Saturday afternoon. The festival has been held in a park literally minutes away from my house in early September for the past 12 years, but this is the first time I have actually been involved in it. Indeed, quite often I’m out and about during this weekend – September is often a busy coaching season – so it was quite a novelty both to be in town for the festival and to have work I could walk to.

I had been approached to lead a workshop on the back of the workshops I’d led with Magenta during the Moseley Festival* over the years. But that format – learn a brand new arrangement in an afternoon – wasn’t going to work for this situation for various reasons. They needed something rather shorter than those musically ambitious events took, and that could be adapted for whatever random number and mix of people who chose to come along. So we went for a cappella improvisation.

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