Taking Big Steps with Capital Connection

Royce's Very Useful ExerciseRoyce's Very Useful ExerciseA warm and sunny Sunday afternoon took my down to Ruislip to work with my friends at Capital Connection on the new contest package they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention in the autumn. It’s a themed package that pairs a reasonably well-established song in the barbershop contest repertoire with a brand new arrangement by the chorus’s director Debi Cox. I had worked with her earlier in the year on the latter, as part of my arranger consultancy services, so it was rewarding to go and see the chart on the next stage of its journey.

The songs were at the stage where the technical demands and the overall concepts were well under control, so it was time to dig deeper for shape, colour, nuance. Debi had built in some wonderful opportunities for exploiting different vocal colours in the set-up to her arrangement, so we started out exploring the contrasting soundworlds those implied.

Helping Red Rock Harmonise

Red Rock HarmonyLast weekend took me down to Teignmouth in Devon to work with Red Rock Harmony as they prepare for their first outing to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. The chorus is about five years old, but has only recently got to a point in their development when they felt like taking the leap into contest on a national stage. Some of their number have experienced this with other choruses, but many will be new in.

I arrived at the point where their convention songs were memorised reasonably confidently, but still needed bringing into focus in places. The chorus were pretty consistently singing the right notes, but not always with a full grasp of why those particular notes were there, so the chords weren’t always locking into true.

Artistry in Amersham

The customary hastily-snapped warm-up pic...The customary hastily-snapped warm-up pic...

Tuesday evening took me down to have a whirlwind session with my friends at Amersham A Cappella. We got through an unbelievable quantity of stuff in a little over two hours, through a combination of some virtuoso prioritising from their director Helen Lappert and me (to blow our own trumpets unashamedly) and the stupendous level of up-for-it-ness the chorus brings to everything they do. It helps that they have very secure technical skills so we were able to work on artistry confident that their voices would be able to deliver what the songs needed.

We spent the first part of the session working on my medley of ‘Hit Me With a Hot Note’ and ‘Too Darn Hot’ that they won a silver medal with at LABBS Convention last year, and then took a whistle-stop tour through their repertoire, encompassing a new barbershop ballad, a Katy Perry song, a spiritual and a madrigal. As you can imagine, this makes it quite a tricky evening to summarise!

BAC Hat Trick


Sunday was my third visit to Bristol A Cappella in 2016, and the last one before they sing as the first competitor in the UK’s first ever mixed barbershop chorus competition in Harrogate at the end of May. This is going to be a significant adventure for them, as whilst there is a strong core of barbershop experience in the group, the majority have no prior experience either of the specific experience of a barbershop convention, or the general experience of travelling that far and staying away from home to participate in a singing contest. But if you’re going to go on an adventure, you may as well make history while you’re at it, eh?

Our focus was thus on performance communication and mental preparation. We had a couple of technical details that needed attention, but we got them out of the way early so we could get back out of our left brains. And in the event even these turned out to be about meaning rather than technique: the notes were right but the chords weren’t locking because people were struggling to work out why they were right. Once we made sense of the progressions, the chords came into focus.

Just Peachy Coaching

justpeachyContinuing the contest-preparation season, I had a visit on Monday from Just Peachy quartet, also gearing up to LABBS prelims in June. This is a new quartet in several senses - not only have they been singing together for only 6 months, but only one has previous quartet experience, and two of them are also very new to barbershop singing. It is most exciting to help people at these early stages of their journey!

(Oh, and for the numerate amongst you, the fifth person is an extra baritone, Helen, who will be kindly standing in so they can compete despite availability difficulties.)

Something I first noticed teaching piano 20 years ago is that when people come along having identified something they’d like help with, they’re often more than halfway there with that particular challenge. The fact they ask about it signals that they are aware of the need for attention and have already been working on it. There may be things that they’ve not yet put their minds to where I can actually make more of a difference.

Swinging with Revival

RevivalSaturday brought Revival quartet over for a coaching session in preparation for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers quartet prelims in June. This is a quartet that is recently formed, but brings together a lot of experience, each of the singers having sung in previous champion quartets within the association. Indeed, three of them had come here for coaching with previous quartets, so from my perspective it felt more like a reunion than a revival!

Our focus was on swing song that was in good general shape, both in terms of technical control and musical characterisation, and so ripe for bringing its detail to life. The starting-point for swing is inevitably rhythmic shape: back-beat, swung quavers, flavour/feel of the groove in dialogue with tempo. Interestingly, though, once that framework is secure (which, with a couple of momentary exceptions, it was here) you find yourself working a lot more with texture and orchestration.

Story-telling with Royal Effect

royaleffectGood Friday brought Royal Effect quartet to visit for a coaching session. They are preparing for the Sweet Adelines Region 31 Convention in May, and brought their contest set along in a state where the technical challenges were largely under control leaving us to focus on the artistry of their delivery. The two songs are very different in shape and feel, but we found ourselves working with both of them in terms of narrative.

Their ballad is essentially a declaration of love that elaborates on a single, central idea. This gives it a great sense of purpose, but can make it harder to find the variety and contrasts a performance needs amongst the unity.

It becomes much easier to find shape and narrative if you recast the song as a dialogue rather than a monologue. Having established the scenario - the moment in the journey of a relationship - that the quartet imagined this moment to be taking place in, we brought the imagined beloved into the room.

Cheshire Chord Analysis


The Thursday afternoon before the long Easter weekend is not a sensible time to drive up the M6 from Birmingham to Warrington. Possibly you knew that already, but when we agreed the date for me to go and work with Cheshire Chord Company on their new ballad, it had escaped my notice that Easter was so early. Just as well, I thought as I crept along in nose-to-tail traffic for 80 miles, that I was going to have such fun making music when I got there. Bright-siding is easy when you’re visiting a chorus with such a culture of positivity.

My remit was, as in my previous visits, to help them explore the music at an early stage of development, to deepen their understanding of what the song and arrangement were doing, and why they were doing it like that.

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