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.

A Menagerie of Metaphors

Floddy the Hippo of Belonging: sorry about the camera-shake - it must have been an emotional moment...Floddy the Hippo of Belonging: sorry about the camera-shake - it must have been an emotional moment...Everyone likes a good animal metaphor. At least, anyone who’s any fun does. After running into some new ones at the BABS Directors Academy in January, I realised I was getting a nice little collection together, enough to share as a group.

Floddy, the Hippo of Belonging Anyone who has come to my house for coaching in the last decade will have met my side-kick Floddy the hippo. But his main claim to fame was as the personification of love and belonging needs in a session I did for LABBS directors on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs back in 2012.

Elephants appeared twice during that recent weekend. Alex and Boo de Bruin told of how in their time at Avon Harmony they would work on engaging the breath by asking singers to push Boris the purple elephant from in front of them out to the side. It wasn’t clear why Boris needed to be purple, but it was definitely an important attribute.

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.

On Choral Courage

Having recently shared David McEachern’s wise observation that you can’t necessarily choose to be confident, but you can choose to be courageous, I’d like to share a story of choral courage I witnessed about a year ago.

Those of you who know me in real life are aware that last January my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. She seemed happy and healthy when she spoke to my brother on the Sunday, to me on the Monday, and had lunch with her sister on the Tuesday. Then she failed to turn up to choir practice on Thursday. She never missed choir practice without warning.

Exploring Compensating Rubato with LaBOOM

Action screen-shotAction screen-shot

Saturday took my musical attention back to Munich, though my body stayed at home. The amenity of Skype allowed me to spend a couple of hours with LaBOOM quartet working on two new songs I arranged for them back in the autumn. They quite sensibly wanted to get this session done early in the learning process, to shape the overall concept of the songs before they’d got too settled in their habits with them.

The most challenging area we tackled during the session was getting a feel for compensating rubato. Their ballad is in a gentle ¾ time, and they had been feeling as quite strongly waltz-like. Our task was to ease this framework up into something slightly more flexible without spoiling the sense of poetic metre or the lilt that the time signature provided.

Setting the Tone with Jordan Travis

The collected directors, led in song by Jordan TravisThe collected directors, led in song by Jordan Travis

I spent the weekend at the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual Directors Academy, this year led by guest educator Jordan Travis. At the start of the weekend he framed his approach using the metaphor of harmony that is central to barbershop culture: musical harmony as both cause and expression of social harmony.

As the weekend progressed, though, a more specific metaphor seemed to emerge in his twin interests in vocal technique on one hand and chorus culture and values on the other. This crystallised on the Sunday morning while we were analysing the warm-up he had led the delegates through, and he talked about the ways that the warm-up ‘sets the tone’ for the rehearsal to come in both dimensions.

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