Coaching

Coaching Micro and Macro with Capital Connection

CapCon17The weekend after my visit to Bristol A Cappella took me, first, down to London to work with my friends at Capital Connection. (The second part of my tour, to Norwich, follows in a subsequent post.) We were working on a contest package that they had originally planned for LABBS Convention 2016, but which they had subsequently decided needed a longer development phase, so they will be taking it to this year’s European Convention instead.

One of my hopes for this convention is that all our international visitors will think, ‘Gosh, they’re doing interesting music in LABBS,’ and Capital are contributing to this ambition with the contest premiere of an arrangement by their director Debi Cox. Coaching an arrangement directed by its arranger is strangely very like coaching any other arrangement – the same process of music analysis and performance diagnosis – except that when you point out to the singers, ‘That’s a nice bit of arranging there,’ the person you are praising actually gets to hear and appreciate the compliment.

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.

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.

Harmonious Yorkshire Spirits

SpiritFeb17Thursday evening took me up to the Vale of York to work with Spirit of Harmony on some arrangements I delivered to them last year. I had arranged for the chorus several times some years ago, and also worked with a couple of smaller ensembles from within the chorus, but this was my first time coaching the full body of singers. As ever, I’m not going to tell you what the songs are so as not to anticipate the moment the chorus chooses to reveal them, but I can reflect on the process.

It’s an endlessly fascinating exercise in practical aesthetics negotiating how music should go: who decides, and how you decide. As an arranger I’ll have always imagined the delivery in depth as part of the arranging process – as Neil Watkins used to say, the arranger’s task is to conjour up the full performance in their mind, then write that down. But equally, it is the performer’s job and prerogative to bring their own creative imagination to the shaping of the narrative.

More Artistry in Amersham

AmershamJan17Tuesday last week took me down to Amersham to work with current LABBS chorus champions, Amersham A Cappella on the wonderful ballad that helped secure their gold medal back in October. For, they may already triumphed with it, but there was still more music to hidden within in, and my task was to help them bring it out.

The song is a 1950s adaptation of Chopin’s Etude in E major, which added words to the outer, melodic sections to turn it into a love song. The challenge for a pianist is how to string these relatively slow-moving notes together into a continuous line, given that every note on a piano dies as soon as it is struck.

Singers obviously have the advantage of being able to produce a genuine continuity of sound, but they still need to generate flow and flexibility out a line of even crotchets, and there is a lot to be learned from listening to how pianists handle this. So, I had sent some listening homework to the chorus in advance – three pianists’ performances, Jo Stafford’s classic recording of the ballad, and the Ambassadors of Harmony’s performance from the 2012 BHS International Convention – along with some commentary of what to listen out for.

New Feature: Availability Calendar

availabilityJanuary is one of the points in the year when I seem to spend a lot of time responding to emails enquiring when I am available for coaching and workshop bookings. And I spend a lot of it living with a mild background anxiety that, once I've told various groups which dates are free, and they've gone back to consult with their members, they're all going to come back and ask for the same day.

The obvious solution to this, and one which it has only taken me 7 years to think of, is to publish which dates are possible so people can consult amongst themselves before getting in touch to book. At the least, this will save us all a cycle of email toing and froing, and at best it will prevent disappointment when somebody snaffles your preferred date first.

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