A Cappella

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.

Thoughts on Performance and Skill-Development

Over the autumn and winter I found myself teaching two courses designed to bring relative novices up to a decent foundational level of skill. One was the Initial conducting course for the Association of British Choral Directors that took place on four Saturdays in Newcastle between October and February. The other was the Learn to Sing in Harmony course hosted by the Telfordaires for 90 minutes each week on our first six rehearsals of the new year.

I found myself having the same conversation with more than one person on each of these courses, where they would remark that they had practised at home and were confident they could do a particular musical task, but when came to the next session it suddenly became much harder. In the former case, it was about how the beat patterns for 2, 3 and 4 seem simple until you add other things them like cueing, or indeed listening to the singers you are leading at the same time. In the latter, it was about how you can sing your part perfectly well by yourself, but it becomes a lot harder when you add the other three parts into the mix.

8-Parter Project: Double Quartet or Double Chorus?

Having considered the nature of the 8-part ensemble from the perspective of genre (SATB divisi versus combined male and female barbershop ensembles), we also need to consider the question of whether we’re thinking about combined choruses or quartets, i.e. whether we have one person or several people singing each part.

This is something I’ve thought about in general terms, and I was interested to look back and see that it also was all the way back in 2009 that I first wrote about it, and moreover that my thoughts were relatively underdeveloped back then. I’ve done a lot more thinking since about the nature of doubling: how you can move more flexibly between different numbers of sounding lines when you have a multiple voices per part than you can with one-a-part textures. This was something I particularly enjoyed with Magenta; in a group where we all sang different parts for different songs, we could move seamlessly between unisons, duets and full harmonies because we were all accustomed to blending with different combinations of voices as a matter of course.

Adventures in Aberdeenshire

Traditional warm-up pic: with added antlersTraditional warm-up pic: with added antlers

I spent the weekend up in snowy Aberdeenshire with the Granite City Chorus at their annual retreat. They have an effective structure for the event, which they hold at a hotel about 45 minutes out of the city where they’re based – close enough for convenience, but far enough to feel bracketed off from regular life. We had a full day for coaching on the Saturday, followed by a convivial evening, with a nice balance of planned activity (meal, quiz, singing) and unstructured social time. Sunday’s work finished with lunch, meaning everyone could find their way back to real life before they got too wiped out.

The thing that makes this structure so effective is the chance to work on things, then revisit them after a night’s sleep. It is during sleep that new skills and knowledge get transferred from short-term memory into longer-term storage, so on the second day you discover which bits made that journey safely, and which bits fell out en route. There’ll always be some of each, but you can’t tell in advance which will be which. It also gives you the opportunity at the end of the first day to discuss together what people would like to spend time on in the morning. As a coach, this means you go in better prepared, and as a singer you go in primed for what’s coming next.

8-Parter Project: Exploring Duets

Having played with texture and voicing in arranging a single-persona song for a double quartet/chorus ensemble, I have turned by attention to double-persona songs, or duets as you’d call them when each persona is represented by an individual singer rather than a group. The structure of combining a male and female ensemble, each with a pre-existent and ongoing identity as a performing unit, maps very easily onto the classic girl-boy duet structure, and the practice of groups combining for numbers when they appear on shows together means there is a ready need for charts they can sing together.

The first two questions I’ve bumped up against are as follows.

Key

The norm in barbershop writing is that women sing in a key about a 4th or a 5th higher than men would for the same arrangement. Duets, on the other hand, are typically written with both singers singing in the same key. In 8-part charts this often leads to the men being pushed a bit lower than is comfortable for them and/or the women being pushed a bit too high.

Harmonising Blue Notes

At the start of this year, I was sharing some feedback with an arranger on a chart-in-progress, and went to send him my post on the difference between blue 3rds and minor 3rds. It turned out that I’d never actually written it, and what I was remembering having written took place in an email conversation with Adam Scott back in 2014 when he was commissioning ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the Barbershop Harmony Society.

So it looks like I should probably get around to writing it now, as the technical and artistic challenges of blue notes for a cappella arranging aren’t going to go away.

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