A Cappella

Spring Fest 2017

4 of the 5 tutors for the day4 of the 5 tutors for the day

Last Sunday saw my third consecutive year as a tutor for the A Cappella Spring Fest at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot. The day took a similar shape to the previous years, with a plenary warm-up followed by themed classes and workshops in the morning, then afternoon rehearsals in a variety of a cappella genres, culminating in performances where we all shared our efforts.

I was leading the Contemporary A Cappella stream again this year, but with the added amenity of vocal percussion. Andy Frost from the Magnets ran two general workshops on beatboxing in the morning, and then during the afternoon coached a small group to add a vocal percussion part to Ben Bram’s arrangement of ‘Uptown Funk’.

It is a moderately challenging arrangement – though we had cut it down somewhat, given the short rehearsal time available – but participants took it well in their stride. It helps that the intricate parts that need rather more attention to get right come back at several points in the arrangement, so you feel it is worth investing the time in them, as you’ll get plenty of use out of that work. The passages aren’t expensive on a cost-per-sing basis, so to speak.

Arranging Processes

Every so often somebody will ask me how long it takes to do an arrangement, and I invariably find it a difficult question to answer. The headline answer is usually 2-4 weeks, depending on what else is going on in my life. But that’s just the time elapsed between starting work in earnest and delivering a completed chart, which isn’t the same as how long I spend working on it.

The more detailed answer is that it is impossible to say, as the distinction between working on an arrangement and not working on an arrangement isn’t very clear cut. (This is a specific instance of the observation that to talk about work/life balance assumes you can tell which is which.) Anyone who has been involved with practical music-making is familiar with the way your brain keeps processing the music you are working on between rehearsals and practice sessions. I may only spend an hour or two at a time actually sat at the piano or the computer, but the effectiveness and productivity of those sessions absolutely relies on my brain’s ruminations in between them.

And it turns out that this background processing isn’t just a continual, generalised mulling. I have gradually become aware of certain types of musical problem-solving emerging in quite specific circumstances:

More Musicking in Yorkshire

WRmar2017

Wednesday night took me back to Yorkshire for my second evening of music-making with Sally McLean in a month, this time with the chorus she is featured working with in my choral conducting book, The White Rosettes. And, like my last visit, the task was to work on a new arrangement in its early stages of development.

So, once again it’s all going to be a bit cryptic, as I’m not going to tell you what the song is before they are ready for the big reveal. I realise that this makes the reading experience a bit abstract, but it will all be worth it when you hear the contest premiere in October as they sing to defend their LABBS and European Championship titles.

A theme throughout the evening was the different ways a piece of music can be challenging. There are several dimensions in which I had deliberately chosen not to stretch the chorus in this arrangement. Apart from a somewhat rangy melody (the composer’s choice, that one), the vocal parts stay well within the compass the chorus are used to. The texture isn’t unduly complex. The chord choices are in the main the obvious ones suggested by the melody – indeed, quite often the harmony is less complex than the original. And the lines have had received a lot of work on making them intuitively singable.

Minor Changes in Availability of Arrangements

There have been some alternating rumbles of excitement and disappointment in the arranging community over the last year or two over a programme developed by Sheet Music Plus in collaboration with Hal Leonard. They have produced a list of about 1000 songs pre-approved for arranging, so long as you publish the arrangements through SMP. Anyone who has to grapple with the bureaucracy of copyright permissions for new arrangements finds their ears perking up when they hear of it.

The disappointment arrives when you realise that one of the excluded ensembles is choral. I’d been round that loop a couple of times when my friend Debi Cox had the bright idea of actually contacting them with a query, and established that while they don’t know when they’ll be able to add choral arrangements to the list, they are able to accept arrangements for chamber-sized, one-a-part a cappella groups such as barbershop quartets and contemporary a cappella ensembles, up to 8 parts.

Hurrah!...However…

More Artistry in Amersham

AmershamJan17Tuesday last week took me down to Amersham to work with current LABBS chorus champions, Amersham A Cappella on the wonderful ballad that helped secure their gold medal back in October. For, they may already triumphed with it, but there was still more music to hidden within in, and my task was to help them bring it out.

The song is a 1950s adaptation of Chopin’s Etude in E major, which added words to the outer, melodic sections to turn it into a love song. The challenge for a pianist is how to string these relatively slow-moving notes together into a continuous line, given that every note on a piano dies as soon as it is struck.

Singers obviously have the advantage of being able to produce a genuine continuity of sound, but they still need to generate flow and flexibility out a line of even crotchets, and there is a lot to be learned from listening to how pianists handle this. So, I had sent some listening homework to the chorus in advance – three pianists’ performances, Jo Stafford’s classic recording of the ballad, and the Ambassadors of Harmony’s performance from the 2012 BHS International Convention – along with some commentary of what to listen out for.

Magenta News

Magenta2017In my New Year post I mentioned that I would be seeing a significant change in 2017, though was not at that point quite ready to talk about it. And whilst it’s still too soon to reflect in any depth, now is the moment to tell you that yesterday Magenta, the choir I founded 10 years ago, gave its last concert in its current incarnation.

The reason we are stopping is a concatenation of circumstances happening in Real Life (work, family, health, relationships – the usual) that led to a significant number of established members needing to leave in a short space of time. Our plan as of the middle of the autumn had been to recruit in the New Year – a good time of year to find people on the lookout for new adventures – and start a new cohort after our concert at the end of January.

Interval Class and Vocal Style

One of the first aspects of barbershop harmony I wrote about in my early years of discovering it (and which found its way in into Chapter 2 of my book) was the genre’s idiosyncratic approach to the concepts of consonance and dissonance. Traditional music theory sees these as unfolding in alternation, with dissonance injecting energy into the sound which is released with the resolution into consonance. Much of our experience of musical tension and release comes from this harmonic process.

But the barbershop world associates the concept ‘consonant’ with its characteristic soundworld of lock and ring. So it includes the perfect intervals and triads of tonal theory, but also adds to the category a bunch of other chords – mostly notably the dominant-type (or barbershop) 7ths – that tonal theory would label dissonant for their capacity to generate a sense of forward motion.

Constructing Medleys

Putting more than one song together to make a bigger structure is a standard part of the arranger’s craft. There are all kinds of interesting things to think about the how you join the songs together, but today my interest is on the more fundamental level of how you choose them.

I think about medleys in two types. One is a collection of tunes that share a common origin or set of associations. Say, selections from a show, or songs by (or made famous by) a particular artist or group, such as my Madonna Medley or Meatloaf Medley. I tend to think of these as show pieces, useful as they offer a longer span of musical time without a break than single songs would, in much the same way that classical concert programming places more substantial works as focal points amongst the shorter items.

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