Arranging

On the Melody of Harmony Parts in the Time of Covid

The value of writing harmony parts that are intuitive to sing is something I have been going on about, in various contexts, for years. At a practical level, it saves you rehearsal time; at an artistic level, it allows performers to focus on singing expressively without needing their technical brains monitoring the detail all the time.

As with so many things, the exigencies of life under covid have brought this imperative into even sharper relief. When we first took our rehearsals online, and found ourselves in a world where people can’t viably sing together, there was a lot of bright-siding on the theme of how this would require all our singers to take more individual responsibility for learning their music.

Reflecting on the Craft: an Evening with Chorus Iceni

I forgot to take a screenshot, so borrowed a nice pic from their websiteI forgot to take a screenshot, so borrowed a nice pic from their website

On Monday evening I had the pleasure of visiting Chorus Iceni as part of the series of masterclasses they are running over this autumn. It is always a delight to be invited to share my craft (you can tell from my blog title I get my kicks from increasing the world’s capacity to harmonise), but it was a particular joy to visit this chorus, as this was the group, under their previous name of Colne Harmony, in which I had started my barbershop journey back in 1996.

There were still three faces from the club back then, including Sally who was membership secretary at the time, and Maxine with whom I sang in my first quartet. I’d normally be looking forward to seeing them at LABBS Convention at the end of October, but as this has – like so much else this year – had to become a virtual event instead, it was lovely to get the chance to say hello in person, if not to hang out and gossip at such leisure.

Reflections on Texture, Persona, and Sharing the Candy

When I joined the Telfordaires, the chorus repertoire included an arrangement of a popular ballad in which the leads had the melody, and, apart from a couple of short passages where the tenors duetted with them, everyone else sang ‘doo’ throughout. Members of the harmony parts had mixed feelings about the song. On the one hand, they recognised that it was very beautiful in performance and went down well with audiences (the Telfordaires really get their kicks from pleasing audiences), but on the other, having no lyrics to sing left them feeling a bit left out of the story.

I have been alert to the need to share the narrative and musical candy around ever since Sandra Lea-Riley commissioned me to arrange Moondance for Heartbeat with the memorable specification that they wanted a bassline that wasn’t just ‘all those damn dms’. So when I started to think about how I was going to approach another popular ballad I’ve recently been asked to arrange for a quartet, I went in with the thought that whilst the voice+guitar texture of the original lent itself beautifully to a melody+doo arrangement, I would find ways to move beyond this as the arrangement went on to keep all singers involved.

Exploring Implicit Knowledge with the Red Rosettes

Screenshot or it didn't happen...Screenshot or it didn't happen...

I had a productive session on Tuesday evening with the music team of the Red Rosettes, exploring musical features of the ballad I arranged for them last year. I would have met with the whole chorus, but their rehearsal clashes with my own, and while under normal circumstances I don’t mind occasionally abandoning my team to get on with things while I visit another chorus, under current conditions I’d rather not. Not that my team aren’t awesome, you understand, I just want to be there for them.

Anyway, the Red Rosettes were very understanding, and we recorded the session to share with the rest of their singers. There is an advantage in a smaller group that you have a more genuinely interactive session, so there were upsides too.

They had sent me a recording of the chorus singing the ballad just before lockdown, and whilst it was clearly still work-in-progress, you could hear that they are on the case: they have a clear intuitive feel for what the music is doing and what it asks of the singers. Our session largely involved bring this intuition to the surface, articulating things they have felt implicitly to help them understand their instincts.

Arranging Update: Opening Up for Commissions

From today I am available again for arrangement commissions! Thank you for your patience while I took time out to do some learning and experimenting. As I’ve explained to the various people who have enquired since I stopped taking new commissions back in October so I could work my way through those I’d already committed to and create some space for my own project, I didn’t keep a waiting list in the interim. Experience has told me that if you queue people up too many months in advance, by the time you get to them, their needs have changed anyway.

So, I won’t assume that you’re still looking at the songs you were talking about earlier in the year, and am starting from a blank slate. As is my usual practice, I slot people in basically in the order that the commissions are confirmed (including, if applicable, evidence of the necessary permissions), though jiggling about a bit to take into account the timescales different groups are working to.

It will be interesting to see what it’s like going back to 4-part writing after 6 months focused exclusively on 8-parters. Though of course, if you’d like to commission an 8-parter, I’m better at it now that than I was 6 months ago :-)

Blue Sky thinking with Mayflower A Cappella

MayflowersJun20a

My last couple of coaching visits have been to help out on new, recently commissioned arrangements. Monday evening was a development on this theme, with an invitation to visit the Mayflower A Cappella Chorus in Plymouth to talk about my arrangement of Mr Blue Sky, which they are currently learning.

This was an interesting challenge as instead of dealing with a chart that was relatively fresh in memory, it involved revisiting music I had written 9 full years ago. What could I remember from my past self’s experience of working on this music? What did I see in it looking at it with fresh eyes?

Facsinating Melody

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They say that if you lose one of your senses, your others increase in acuity to compensate: you become better at hearing if you lose your sight, for instance. It has seemed to me that as remote rehearsing strips out our capacity to operate harmonically, our awareness and appreciation of melody has blossomed to fill the aesthetic gap.

To be fair, I was always a sucker for a good tune, and had I been able to go and work with Fascinating Rhythm in person on Thursday, we probably would have spent a lot of our time thinking about melody anyway, given the character of the music we were dealing with . But I was particularly glad that the song they had asked me to arrange for them last autumn* that we explored together is so profoundly melodic, as it gives them the opportunity to reach much of what the heart of the music is about, even while they are stuck in their Zoom rooms.

Principles for Creative Work, aka Things Not to Worry About

This post started out as a framework to guide a group with whom I’m starting a new creative adventure. (Yes, you will hear about it in due course, but we actually have to produce some stuff first.) Sharing it for all my other friends and colleagues who might find it useful.

  • You will have more ideas than you can use. This means you will have to throw a lot of them away. Don’t worry about this apparent ‘waste’. Discarded ideas don’t go into landfill, they become the compost that makes your creative soil more fertile.
  • You will start more projects than you finish, especially in the earlier stages of your creative adventure. This doesn’t mean you lack staying power, it is a normal part of the process. See above re composting.

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