A Cappella

LABBS Harmony College 2019

Arty long-shot of our central themeArty long-shot of our central themeEvery so often, the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers replaces its usual programme of regional education days and training events for chorus directors and quartets with a single grand shindig. The last Harmony College took place in 2016, to celebrate the organisation’s 40th birthday, and it was so well received that it was decided to programme them into the events cycle every three years.

Hence, 330 of us – mostly but not exclusively LABBS members – gathered together at Nottingham University last weekend. This was a significantly larger number than three years ago (to the extent that the organisation kept having to go back to the university to get more bedrooms allocated), so I don’t see Harmony College losing its place in the cycle any time soon.

Atomic Quartet Coaching

AtomicI spent Monday afternoon until mid-afternoon on Tuesday with Atomic Quartet, who had come up from Cornwall for an intensive bout of coaching both as quartet and as individual singers. They had initially suggested doing PVIs (‘personal voice instruction’ for those unfamiliar with the acronym) on the Monday, followed by quartet coaching the next day, but I inflected this model into a more flexible approach that shifted between individual and ensemble work more fluidly.

I remembered the way that Rivka Golani taught viola at the Birmingham Conservatoire. All her students were entitled to a certain number of hours of one-to-one tuition as part of their course, but rather than seeing them one at a time, she used to have all of them together for one day a week, observing as she worked with each in turn. Her students spoke very positively of this experience, and I observed strong bonds of trust between them.

Building the Toolkit with Aurora Quartet

aurora

Last Sunday brought Aurora Quartet round for an afternoon’s coaching. They are a recently formed quartet, two of whom have little prior quartetting experience, so whilst the content of our work revolved around two of their songs, our attention was firmly on providing techniques and rehearsal tactics they could use to continue their development beyond the coaching session.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to know that duetting featured prominently here, and worked its usual magic. Indeed, it was in this context that previous experience showed most clearly, by producing the most clearly articulated observations on what they had been listening to. Honing the listening skills isn’t just about the ears, it’s about working out what the ears have just perceived, and the duetting process gives a structured environment in which to develop this skill, at the same time as cleaning up the quartet’s performance.

Eclectic Quartet Coaching

I'm using their pic because it's better than the one I tookI'm using their pic because it's better than the one I tookI spent Saturday afternoon working with The Eclectic Quartet, who are preparing for their first BABS Quartet semi-final together, having qualified for Convention at Prelims back in November. They bring a good deal of flexibility and musicianship to their singing, with a readiness to drop into a song at any point, which made our work pleasantly efficient.

We gave most of our attention to developing the musical shape of their two newest songs, paying attention to both local details and building the overall arc. One of the challenges of a style that uses only four voices in a predominantly homophonic texture is that the resources for developing musical architecture and contrast are inherently more limited than, say, an orchestra, or even a piano. But within that sound world, even with its restrictions of range, timbre and texture, you can achieve a satisfying range of expression if you have a canny arranger and are alert to the signals they give you. The arrangers of both their charts can be very canny in this way, so we had plenty to work with.

Expressive Modes and Musical Shape

exprmodesWhen coaching a cappella groups, I’ll often point out a basic distinction build into popular a cappella styles that encodes information about how the music is communicating. When only one part is singing the words, with the others accompanying, the intent is usually narrative, telling a story. When all parts are singing the same words (and this usually implies at the same time – homorhythmic or nearly so), the intent is usually declarative, making a statement.

Of course, there are intermediate states - accompanied duet, or trio plus neutral bass-line for instance – but they slot in quite happily on this continuum between the more discursive and the more emphatic.

On the Prosody of Twiddles

Okay, so this one is pretty niche, and delves into some nitty-gritty. But it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about just recently, so I’m going to share anyway. If you can’t be doing with the detail, you can always go back and have a bit of a laugh at the comments on my post on mansplaining instead.

twiddles

If you play the piano, you will know that of the three following motifs, (a) and (b) are easier to play than (c). There’s a bit of a knack to rapid repeated notes, but once you’ve got it, you’re sorted, whilst adjacent notes are always relatively straightforward because you can use adjacent fingers and don’t need to change your hand or arm position. Mixing the two, though, requires you to switch between the two techniques mid-twiddle, incurring a disproportionately high cognitive overhead for the duration of the material.

On Shifting Keys

Today’s reflections were sparked by a message from a friend asking the following question:

Question, how do you feel as an arranger, singer, and/or multi-genre musician about the practice of habitually shifting the keys of songs? One of my quartets casually shifts many songs up a tone or more as if it's nothing (including with little notice), and it's putting strain on me both vocally and conceptually. It's alright if the song is simple, but if there are mucho chromatics I have to perform integral calculus as I go, and it breaks my music memory. Can I put my foot down or am I being unreasonable?

It’s a good one, isn’t it? My immediate response was that there needs to be some sort of negotiation here – just because a different key is good for one or two voices, doesn’t make it good for all. And that if they are habitually picking arrangements that comfortably accommodate either low or high voices, but not both at once, they need to have a bit of a think about how they are going about this.

On the Liberalising of the Barbershop Style

One of the things that has happened in the five years since I stopped being a barbershop Music judge is that there has been a deliberate policy to frame both the category description and the way it is used in practice in ways that will encourage more new music. And you’d have to say it has been largely successful. We are hearing a much wider variety of songs in contest than we used to.

In part this has been about loosening rules so they express what is best practice rather than a ‘do-this-or-else’ approach. So, for example, the chord vocabulary is now presented in a hierarchy of ringability, rather than with the distinctions between chords that are allowed, those allowed under certain circumstances, and those not allowed. All chords are allowed, but if you want to score well, keep using lots of major triads and barbershop (dominant-type) 7ths as they are the most barbershoppy.

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