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Explorations in Musical Shape with Cheshire Chord Company

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After a series of cancellations on Thursday, Friday and Saturday last week due to weather-related travel disruptions, I was delighted finally to be able to fulfil a coaching commitment on Sunday. My friends at Cheshire Chord Company had invited me back to work through a couple of songs they are currently learning.

We spent the morning on barbershop swing standard ‘That’s Life’. This is a classic chart that always comes over enjoyably in performance, but is often quite generalised in its expression. There is, we discovered, a good deal more scope than you might have guessed both for creating a large-scale arc and for finding nuance in the detail.

The key to both of these dimensions is to take the weight out of the rhythm in first iteration of the chorus and play it cool. If you drive it hard all the way through, you’re probably feeling all the moments as you sing them, but they get overshadowed by the weight of the pulse. We found a characterisation and body language that laid it all back so that when the music demanded moments of punctuation or passages of build and release, these showed through far more vividly.

It’s also helpful to attend to the bass line. There are a good many moments where you often hear performers putting emphasis on a lyric (‘shot down in May’, ‘stepping on dreams’) but where the bass line drops down to open the harmonies up into a wider voicing that reduces the musical pressure. Once everyone gets the idea that the shape of the bass line is giving information about how to shape the phrasing, you not only get more ebb and flow in the delivery, you also get a better balance overall.

The afternoon was dedicated to the ballad that will form part of the chorus’s Convention package this year (I’ll leave them to reveal its identity in performance). It was at an ideal stage of development for delving into its artistic shape – people knew it well enough that they could sing it without struggling to remember notes and words, but it had yet to settle into any particular habits of delivery.

We started off exploring melodic shape. The melody is frequently handed between bass and lead, so it’s important for everyone to keep an ear on it so that the audience can hear it come through the texture seamlessly. It is also a beautifully-shaped tune, building up in waves until it bumps up against a pitch-ceiling, which it eventually breaks through at key moments in the lyrical narrative.

We also gave a lot of attention to harmonic colour. This is a song in which the lyrics may tell you what is going on, but the harmonies tell you how to feel about it. We had various flavours of poignancy, plaintiveness, emptiness and hope sculpted through the combination of chord colour and harmonic charge. The individual lines also gave us information about the emotional shape of the song – stepwise motion smoothing the way to swoosh through the phrase, large leaps making more dramatic statements.

On an intensive day like this, there is often a moment when people’s brains fall out. Things they know perfectly well, like for instance the first word of a song, or their name, suddenly dessert them. I have learned to tell people in advance to expect this – it results from the combination of cognitive overload and detachment from habit, and is a sign that we’ve been engaged in really deep learning. Indeed, if it doesn’t happen I conclude I haven’t been stretching them enough.

So, towards the end of the afternoon, when we were about to repeat a phrase we had already worked on for some minutes and nobody could find their note, we had a moment of celebration. We already knew we’d been achieving a lot, and this was confirmation.

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