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Manspreading and Silly Games with Bristol A Cappella

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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.

Now, while this attitude of spatial entitlement may be a socially irritating phenomenon in shared public spaces, it is exactly what you want in the melody line of a Bon Jovi tune. The altos really rocked it when invited to sing the chorus as ‘a double-Dyson line’.

We spent most of the day, though, on a song they are learning for the mixed barbershop chorus contest to be held at the BABS Convention in May. It is at that stage of development where people know it just well enough to start freeing up cognitive capacity to go beyond the ‘what’ into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of how the song goes.

The arrangement they’re using is unusual for the genre in having a lot of dynamic markings added. Which is in many ways useful for communicating how the arranger, Clay Hine, imagined the musical shape. But not entirely. For instance, a diminuendo hairpin placed over a two-bar phrase tells you its general expressive trajectory. But if you follow what appears to be the direct instruction of this marking and make each successive note quieter than the last, you’ll find that a chord with a higher harmonic charge than its predecessor doesn’t quite work. You still need to recognise and respond to the way that dissonance raises the emotional temperature at a local level within the wider process.

Dynamic markings, that is, work at a level of metaphor and suggestion rather than literal instruction. They may help with the process of interpretation, but they don’t substitute for actually getting inside the music and its meanings. I suspect this was more obvious to musicians before the advent of technologies that offer volume controls.

During the last part of the day we moved onto their other song for May, one they have already competed with and know well. It was at a point in the day when people had used the best of their attention already, but had enough left to do something useful with. So we mostly played silly games.

Well, demon exercises disguised at silly games. The toggle principle came into its own as a means to make everyone dig deep for breath (toggling between brrr and vvv), refresh their posture at will (toggling between slumped and aligned), and articulate the text (toggling between crisp and soggy consonants). It was entertaining to observe, in the last of these, what a relief it was to everyone to return to doing something well after an extended period where nobody had toggled them back from the soggy mode.

When I go down again at the end of the month, we have a full weekend to play with, and so the last part of our debrief conversation at the end of the day was looking forward to what they’d like to focus on then. We had already noted the role of the breath point in the narrative as a theme to come back to, and several singers identified handling shifts between different vocal registers as an area they’d like help with. I have spotted two or three areas to put on the to-do list as well, but I’ll talk about them next time.

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