A Cappella

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.

A Dedication of Directors

Director Faculty in actionDirector Faculty in action

There was some discussion after last Saturday’s education day for LABBS chorus directors as to what the collective noun for directors was. We had lots of good suggestions, but I am going with ‘a dedication’ for now because of the way our delegates embraced the preparation we had set for the practical activities with such commitment, resulting in one of the most musically in-depth experiences I have yet managed to orchestrate in a single day.

The coaching model we used was devised, in the first instance, to answer the question as to how to offer practical skills training to lots of people with the resources we had available, You can teach a discussion-based class to a room of 70 people and it works, but hands-on skills need individual attention. In the process, it also answered another question of practical training I have been grappling with – how to develop directors’ musicianship skills. You can communicate ideas in a day, but musicianship takes ongoing work to flourish.

Carving Out an Interpretation with Red Rock Harmony

This shot just gives an inkling of the amazing rehearsal venueThis shot just gives an inkling of the amazing rehearsal venue

After my coaching sessions last week with Strictly A Cappella and Frisson, I headed down to Devon to work with my friends at Red Rock Harmony in Teignmouth. One of the things that is pleasing about repeat visits to a group is to hear how they have improved since you last heard them, and it was lovely to be able to remark on how much more vocally secure they are sounding than last autumn. And this was my third day in a row of groups with pitch integrity. It is a wonderful thing when you can trust the technique and just get on with the music.

For music was our task. The chorus are in the process of learning one of my arrangements, commissioned by another group a couple of years back, but as Red Rock Harmony have joined LABBS since its one and only previous contest performance, they are approaching it as if a brand new chart. My job was to work with them on the delivery, finding the fluidity flow of a barbershop ballad within the black-and-white dots on the page.

Friday Morning Frisson

FrissonThe morning after my evening with Strictly A Cappella, I had the opportunity to work with a mixed quartet from within the group called Frisson. The morning was fresher than the night before, so maybe one shouldn’t be so impressed to encounter as good an integrity of pitch in the sub-group as in the main ensemble, but it would seem churlish not to mention it.

One of the things that this tonal reliability facilitates is the capacity to drop into songs at (almost) any point, and focus your attention on just that bit you want to work on without a distracting run-up to it. There’s just much less cognitive overhead in finding your place if you share an implicit trust in where your tonal centre is rather than having to listen out for it and adjust to it anew each time you start to sing.

Strictly A Cappella

StrictlyI spent a hot and sticky Thursday night down in Radlett with Strictly A Cappella. We were working on bringing out the musical detail in a pleasantly varied range of songs – from Queen, to Duke Ellington, from Diana Ross to gospel. The heat and the closeness of the atmosphere make it all the more impressive to note that this is an ensemble that maintained absolute integrity of tonal centre all evening.

Their rehearsal room is quite small and quite lively, which for many vocal/choral genres can be dangerous – the risk is that people will get used to making a large resonant sound with the help of the walls and ceiling rather than with their own singing technique. But for a moderately large contemporary a cappella group like this, it actually makes their job harder. Much of their music benefits from quite intricate textures, and singing it in a space like that forces everyone to work much harder a keeping it clean and tight, so you don’t lose all the detail in the wash of sound.

Diversity, Revisionism and the Pitfalls of Ambition: A Barbershop Case Study

Music history, like any history, isn’t a neutral portrayal of the past, but the result of a value-laden selection process. Somebody decides what counts as salient historical fact worthy to be included in the narrative.

Revisionist history comes about when someone notices that the choices underlying the narratives we have inherited about our pasts no longer chime well with the values with which we aspire to live our presents. They then go and dig out information about people and events that had hitherto been omitted, and they re-interpret those already included, sometimes finding quite different meanings in them.

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