LABBS Convention 2018

The White Rosettes during their monumental mic-cooling setThe White Rosettes during their monumental mic-cooling set

The last weekend in October is the traditional moment for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers to hold their annual Convention. This year we were back in Harrogate, at the venue in which I experienced my very first one, 21 years ago. The Cheshire Chord Company won the chorus competition on that occasion too.

After the extravangzas of the last two years (the 40th anniversary Convention in 2016, and the European Convention last year), this years’ was always going to feel smaller. But the experience of that was a positive change: it was more intimate, easier to spend quality time with friends, less of a scrummage trying to get round the building.

On the Belief-Capacity Relationship and Choral Stereotypes: A Case Study

Some recent email correspondence about an arrangement of mine turned into a fascinating practical case study in a couple of areas I enjoy theorising about. Normally in this situation I’d make a point of anonymising my correspondent, but since he or she didn’t actually sign any of their emails, it’s kind of a moot point. (This isn’t actually relevant to the story; I just wanted to share the oddness with you!)

Anyway, whoever wrote to me is a chorus director whose chorus had recently purchased copies of my arrangement of Happy Together without consulting him/her, and he/she was dismayed to discover it features a good deal of bass melody. The leads in his/her chorus apparently cannot do harmonies, despite many years of trying, so would I give him permission to re-arrange it with the leads on the tune.

On the Icicle 7th

Chinese 7thRecently Sofia Layarda started off an interesting conversation on Facebook about the chord that barbershoppers have traditionally called the ‘Chinese 7th’. For those not familiar with it, it’s a particular voicing of the dominant-type 7th, with the root and 7th close together at the top, with 3rd dangling a tritone below and the 5th a 6th below that.

It’s a dramatic sonority when sung well, though it takes a bit of nous to balance correctly. Arrangers use it as a kind of ‘statement chord’, placing it strategically to attract attention at moments of heightened expression in a song’s narrative.

Penny-Drop Moment

This is going to be a short one, but it deserves a post in its own right for the sense of revelation it afforded me when the idea plopped into my head.

One of the things I had been thinking about a good deal over the summer is keeping articulation small and precise, and in particular keeping the jaw at rest while singing. This is one of the things that Sean Bui worked on with the Telfordaires in June when he came to us for a coaching session, and it has proved both transformative and challenging. Until we started applying this as a means to reduce tension and improve resonance, we hadn’t realised how much the chorus had been accustomed to experiencing muscular engagement as part of emotional intensity.

David Wright’s List of Key Changes

One of the subjects that came up at the arrangers’ day with David Wright back in August, unsurprisingly, was key changes. In fact, it came up each time we studied a chart that included one, and so David periodically gathered together the threads to give us an overview of the range of possibilities we had explored so far. And once I had likewise gathered them together in my notes, it looked like the kind of list to share.

So, here are four ways that came up that day to get into a new key:

Workshopping with Just Voices

Warm-up action shot!Warm-up action shot!

I spent the weekend down in the second most eastward point of the UK, where Just Voices had convened to hold a weekend’s retreat in Broadstairs. We structured it as two one-day workshops on contrasting themes, but addressing a common core of pieces from their repertoire.

Saturday saw us focusing on the singers as musicians, with a bespoke workshop on Aural Skills for Choral Groups, while Sunday took our attention back out onto the audience with the theme Perform with Panache. We had slightly less time at our disposal on Sunday, though, so we compensated for that by taking the opportunity of the Saturday evening together to prime some ideas to be working on overnight.

Reflections on Coaching: Transformative or Flashy…?

My friend Stefanie Schmidt once made the comment that the kind of coaching sessions she finds most valuable are the ones that give her a concept or a technique she can go away and work on. These may not on the face of it look like the most impactful sessions, as the results aren’t immediately audible, but rather emerge later, and over time. But they make the greatest difference in the longer term.

She contrasted these experiences with those she termed ‘flashy’ coaching. The latter make major changes to the group’s performance, generating great enthusiasm and emotional energy, but not necessarily leaving the group with the wherewithal to recreate the same effect when the coach has gone home and left them to it. Flashy coaching’s legacy can actually to be to undermine the self-belief of people who have been given a glimpse of greatness but find themselves unable reach it again by themselves.

Am I Arranging in Time?

question markOne of the early topics I dealt with in this blog is to consider what arrangers can do to help people sing their music in tune. My listening experiences in recent years have had me thinking about the ways arrangers help or hinder singers in singing well in rhythm.

This is a particular issue for barbershop arrangers, who are working in a genre that on the one hand is quite self-aware about having a rather shaky relationship with rhythm and on the other has taken to syncopation and other forms of rhythmic complexity as an index of coolness. Arrangers pile push-beats on triplets to make the music wiggle its hips and thereby prove that they are sexy and clever rather than simply nerds (music theory geeks) amongst nerds (barbershoppers in general).

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