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Northward to Norwich

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norwichmay17Usually when I go to Norwich it involves going Eastwards, but as I was travelling there straight after my day with Capital Connection, I got a bonus alliteration for my title. Never say I fail to be pleased by small things.

I am also pleased to witness excellent rehearsal technique when I see it. And, having recently both run a workshop on efficient rehearsal techniques and published a blog post that extolled the value of a director minimising their speaking time in favour of the choir’s singing time, I enjoyed watching Norwich Harmony’s director Alison Thompson lead an almost-textbook session of warm-up/vocal craft at the start of the day. The continuity of musical attention she generated gave a very fertile ground for brief, precise spoken interventions as well as gestural enforcements and facial acknowledgements within the flow of the singing. She gently but systematically pushed the singers up the greasy pole of choral skill.

Once she had them vocally in the groove, I had to interrupt my pleasurable viewing and actually make myself useful. The task was to help the chorus get inside the musical shape of two contrasting songs – the contrast being not just in mood and feel, but also therefore in the nature of the musical challenges they presented.

The first song we worked on needed to develop its rhythmic characterisation. In part this was a matter of tempo: they had learned the song at quite a steady pace, which had the advantage that all the harmonic detail was clean and accurate, but speeding it up allowed the built-in bounce in the melodic shape come to life. It also allowed the singers to take the weight out of the unaccented syllables for more lyrical shape - and it was in these places that the previous slower work paid dividends, as they got the benefit of the harmonic colour of those passing chords.

The other things that a faster tempo brought into focus was the way the main accent of each bar was on the 3rd beat, rather than the 1st. From a lyric perspective, again, this makes sense. It’s very rare that the first word of your sentence is the most important one; more often it is the verb or the object than the subject that draws your attention. The songwriter had affirmed this implicit sense of arrival mid-bar by the placement of key words in the rhyme scheme here – the musical as well as the semantic dimensions of the lyric were telling the same rhythmic story.

The second song was one of those ballads that will sound beautiful on first singing, but keeps giving you more and more the deeper you delve into it. There was more music in it, indeed, than we could cover in a single session, so I focused on drawing attention to details that illustrated principles that could guide choices elsewhere in the song (and other songs, come to that).

One of these was the need for vocal delicacy from all singers when the bass is on the 3rd of the chord – and therefore the emotional delicacy that voicing suggests for its expressive delivery. Another was the way that the shape of the harmony parts can give you hints as to how to shape the melody. I have talked about this in greater detail in a blog post that was inspired by this very same arrangement a couple of years ago.

We also explored the expressive power of the phnert, and how the singers on both parts involved in the major-2nd clash need to lean into it to get the vibrancy and rattle into the sound. I had been talking about this with Capital Connection too the day before, and had woken in the night with some thoughts about the sonority that may yet develop into a separate post for arrangers, so I was even more attuned to the interval than usual. I was thus delighted to find a lead-bass phnert in this arrangement that I had not hitherto appreciated.

In exchange for sharing Lori Lyford’s wonderful term for this sound, Norwich Harmony taught me the word ‘Poppinicity’. This is the quality displayed by that person who unfailingly can find in her handbag exactly what you need in any given circumstance.

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