A Cappella

Directors Connecting

dirday2020Saturday 13 June was supposed to have been the day when directors of LABBS choruses convened from around the country in Coventry for our annual training event. Instead, we met online. On the bright side, it meant that costs for both individuals and organisation were negligible, and notwithstanding all the drawbacks of the medium, it was wonderful to get everyone together. It is wonderfully supportive community.

Inevitably, the shape of the event had to change. Instead of a whole day, we shortened it to an afternoon in recognition of the obstacles to focus and engagement on Zoom. And the practical training model I was so looking forward to sharing, involving small groups working on the intimate connection between gesture and sound, will necessarily have to wait until we can get into a room together once again to make that connection.

On the Power of Boo

In the wake of events in the US over the past week or two, I have seen friends making comments along the lines of: I hate that this is happening and I feel helpless because I don’t see what I can do to help. In the spirit of Justin Trudeau’s point that the best response is to put our own house in order, I’d like to share with my barbershop friends a point made by the inimitable Elizabeth Davies.

Those of you who have been following the #donewithdixe debates will know her landmark blog post articulating the reasons why a genre with barbershop’s history of appropriation and exclusion needs to leave a significant chunk of its C20th repertoire in the past if it is to aspire to be the kind of inclusive community it claims to be.

Soapbox: Allocating Parts for Emotional Damage

soapboxIn SATB music, it’s relatively easy figure out which part people should sing if they don’t already know. The texture is built around a divide by sex, with a split between higher and lower voices in each. So you just see what kind of range someone has, and slot them in where the notes they have and the notes the music needs coincide. Some people (counter-tenors, female tenors) defy the first part, but the stratification by range still works, so the model as a whole presents safe a generalisation of how to go about things.

One of the defining characteristics of barbershop music is that the parts are all much less differentiated by range (there’s a clue in the description ‘close-harmony’). Thus, most people can readily sing at least two of the parts, usually three, sometimes all four. You’d think this would take some of the pressure off the decision-making process of part-allocation, but in fact it seems more often to intensify the reliance on social stereotyping in identifying parts.

8-Parter Project: Reflections on Process

All of a sudden I find myself over halfway through the time I set aside for my project to explore arranging in eight parts. In some ways it feels like I have hardly started – it’s not fair that the time should have passed so quickly! – but then I also notice that I have completed 4 arrangements from scratch, reworked an older one, and have a small collection of sketches and part-done trials, at least one of which I intend to return to and finish. So things seem to have been moving.

In the last month of course I have been in a state of almost continual distraction as life has reconfigured itself around a global pandemic. When we stopped going out to do things with other people, we imagined that would give us all extra time to get on with our other projects. But it turns out that having to rethink all your automated habits takes a huge amount of cognitive capacity, never mind the work involved in taking rehearsals online. And the anxiety.

A Virtual Visit to Ocean City

In place of my usual warm-up pics, a screen-grab...In place of my usual warm-up pics, a screen-grab...

It’s a good 3-4 hours by train to Plymouth, so previous visits in that direction have usually been for a whole weekend, sometimes taking in multiple ensembles in the South-West en route. Tuesday evening I popped down for an hour or so, in one of the silver linings of taking rehearsals online. Ocean City Sound had warmed up before I arrived, and continued their evening after I had left – including, I understand, welcoming another visitor, this time BABS Chair Martin Bagelow.

We divided the hour into three sets of activities, aiming to maximise engagement. When you’re all together in a room together, the context binds you together and the novelty of a visiting coach sharpens the concentration. When you’re all logging in from your own homes it takes a lot more cognitive input to stay connected with the virtual activity, so there’s much more need to be structured about it and to refresh attention with changes of task.

8-Parter Project: Managing Texture

Texture has been a recurrent question in my various musings so far on arranging for combined male and female barbershop ensembles, as it is implicated in so many different aspects of the craft. How you conceive the ensemble, for example, and how you manage the mapping of song persona(s) onto performing people.

But it is also presents questions in its own right: beyond how it contributes to the way you make musical meaning, how do you make it sound any good?

Having eight parts of course offers textural opportunities you don’t get with only four. I would not have attempted to arrange Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Right Here Right Now’ for a normal barbershop ensemble, but have had a lot of fun exploring the layering, and antiphonal interchange, of different motifs for a version that is singable live and unamplified.

Remote Rehearsing: Can We Sing Together?

I will stop blogging about remote rehearsing all the time in due course. It’s just that when a lot of us are learning a lot in a short time is when it is useful to share ideas. You can wait a bit longer to hear how the 8-part arranging project is going (quite well, btw).

So, the question that everyone always wants to ask is: can we actually do any singing together in an online choral rehearsal? You, know, like the definition of ‘choral’ would regard as pretty much essential. And the answer is usually no: there’s too much lag, sorry.

Like everyone else doing this lark, I came away from my first remote rehearsal both incredibly buoyed up by having been able to do it at all, and craving harmony. So we did some experimenting in our Music Team meeting that was fortuitously already scheduled for that week, and found ourselves some improvements for our next chorus night.

8-Parter Project: The Cost-per-Wear Problem

One of the practical issues facing a chorus or quartet planning to join with another for a joint piece on a particular performance is that it needs rehearsing properly to bring it to the stage, but you don’t get nearly so much performance use out of it, unless the two ensembles are appearing together regularly. 8-parter, double-ensemble pieces are inherently expensive of rehearsal time on a cost-per-wear basis.

Hence, one of the challenges I set myself during my exploration of this form is to discover whether it is possible to produce an 8-part, double ensemble chart in which the parts for each separate ensemble are also musically complete in their own right. It would be much more useful, after all, if you could both learn a song in parts that fit your own range properly, use it in your regular performance programme, and then sing it together at joint events.

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