A Cappella

Reflections on BABS 2017 Convention

We go to these beautiful places and spend the whole weekend inside: Just as well the music is good....We go to these beautiful places and spend the whole weekend inside: Just as well the music is good....

As usual, I spent the last weekend in May at the second largest barbershop event outside America. (Well, usually it’s the largest, but the European Convention in October is going to be a doozy this year.)

It was the first BABS Convention since the introduction of the new Performance Category into the judging system. In many ways, this change is completing shift in ethos started when the Presentation Category replaced the old Stage Presence and Interpretation categories back in the 1990s, so it represents a development rather than a step change. But the difference it is making is already perceptible in the performance choices people are making.

What I was expecting less, though, was the effect that the change has had on my experience as an audience member. I found myself less patient than previously with performances that I found mechanical or contrived. It made me realise how much I have been in the habit of forgiving certain habits or mannerisms or skill deficits as simply normal for the genre and not therefore to be worried about.

Rehearsing Efficently with Bristol A Cappella Music Team

As I reported a while back, as well as spending two days coaching the full chorus at Bristol A Cappella at the end of April, I also had a two-hour session with their music team in the evening.

In some ways this was a rather over-ambitious programme of activities. We had an hour between finishing one session and starting the next, and a change of venue also probably helped refresh our attention, but we were nonetheless all pretty tired when we reconvened.

But notwithstanding these hurdles, the timing offered advantages that wouldn’t have been available on a stand-alone session. We had a shared experience during the day we could point back to for examples, and we made explicit use of this at the start by going through a structured reflection process based on my conductors’ four questions.

Blonde Ambition

Thanks to the quartet for sending a pic since I forgot to take one!Thanks to the quartet for sending a pic since I forgot to take one!I spent a chunk of the May Day bank holiday with Blonde Ambition quartet. When they first booked the coaching session, it was with the intention of preparing for LABBS prelims in June, but due to an administrative mishap, they will not now be competing this year. The bright side of this is that we could do all kinds of deep work on building technique and working methods that you would never undertake a few weeks ahead of a big performance.

There were two main areas we addressed. First, the intake of breath. Their general approach to breath management was pretty good – they were engaging their support well to produce a nicely resonant and focused sound – but the moment of inhalation was inserting a couple of obstacles into the process. One was a tendency to lift the top of the chest, which introduced some tension and stopped the breath sitting as deeply as it could. The other was a tendency to lift the chin slightly as a result of a slight contraction of the muscles in the back of the neck, which prevented a truly silent breath. (Alexander Technique practitioners would know this as ‘pulling down’.)

Exploring Resonance and Emotion with Bristol A Cappella

Another warm-up shot: "Bananas of the world unite!"Another warm-up shot: "Bananas of the world unite!"I spent the first two days of the bank-holiday weekend with my friends at Bristol A Cappella. We had two full days for coaching the chorus, plus a two-hour session on the Saturday night for music-team training. One of the (many) triumphs of the weekend was pacing it so that we were still capable or productive work during the final hour of Sunday!

Another challenge is working out exactly what to blog about, since by definition when you have considerably more time together than usual, you have considerably more eventful and interesting things to think about on the way home. And considerably less brain with which to do the thinking, come to that.

Manspreading and Silly Games with Bristol A Cappella

The traditional warm-up pic: this time with buntingThe traditional warm-up pic: this time with bunting

Saturday took me down to Bristol for the first of two visits this month to my friends at Bristol A Cappella. We started the day doing some detail work on an arrangement of Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s My Life’ by their director Iain Hallam.

Part of the process of balancing a complex texture is increasing the awareness of those singing the accompanying parts of how the whole fits together. But there’s also a certain tone quality you want from the melody to assert itself through the complexity. We found this partly through technical means (getting the resonance onto the teeth), but also through the more holistic concept of manspreading.

You know how when you sit on a train with a shared armrest and the bloke next to you inhabits it all, with his elbow poking into your space? And with his knees all splayed outwards so they protrude into where your legs should go? That’s manspreading. I had heard of a particularly egregious form of it recently in a facebook conversation about someone who had used both hand dryers in a public toilet, one for each hand.

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.

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