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Swinging with Norwich Harmony

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I spent Saturday working with my friends at Norwich Harmony. Most of our attention was on rhythm in their latest addition to their contest repertoire, with harmonic interludes to vary the musical diet.

We had two main priorities in working with swing rhythms. One was getting the backbeat framework consistently in place, with the main pulses on 2 & 4. As with many a cappella swing tunes, sometimes the surface rhythm facilitated this, but there were also quite straight-looking rhythms that nonetheless needed enlivening by the overall swing flavour.

Norwich Harmony have a conscious competence relationship with this framework. When they are aware of thinking about it, it’s there; when their minds focus on other things, it may not be. Thus our task was to find a variety of activities to keep it present for them so that they could live with it long enough to get it embedded. Backbeat clicks are always a good standby (and good for checking that all chorus members do in fact get it), as is using a small group to add vocal percussion as the chorus as a whole sings.

We also identified a couple of warm-up exercises in swing time (one they already knew, one I taught them) so they could spend time in that idiom in other contexts than this particular song. I also gave them the homework of simply listening to more swing music – you may know how Glen Miller or Duke Ellington sounds, but if you’ve listened to a lot of it recently it is much more immediately accessible as a reference point.

Our second swing task was the particular case of the push-beat. It is all too easy to straighten these out onto the down-beat and lose the spritz and bounce they add to a song. We started out with an exercise that clarified how push-beats work in relation to the straight down-beats, accompanied by gestures that could later be transferred into song.

We then went through and worked through the various uses of push-beats throughout the song. To get each example working in time was not just a matter of identifying *that* it was a push-beat, it was also working out what that push-beat was doing expressively at that point in the song. Why was it necessary to jump in ahead of the beat here? What did that do to the feel of the music?

The thing about push-beats is that it’s not merely about timing, it’s about getting out ahead of the curve. It’s an attitude as much as a device; you need to be alert and up-for-it, to make the music happen rather than have it happen to you. Several chorus members had been to a LABBS education day earlier in the spring, and talked about what they had learned about rhythm from Jenny Mills there. This was a great opportunity to point out that Jenny embodies that attitude: energised, proactive, eyes alight. If you want to sing push-beats, be like Jenny.

(I realise that is no use to those who don't know her, but enough of my readers do to make the point worth sharing!)

A particularly useful practice technique for these was loop-and-repeat. Two bars spoken or sung repeatedly without breaking the metrical framework gives everyone a chance to get into the groove and develop a relationship with a feature that, in the context of the song in performance, is a fleeting moment. Successive iterations deliver a series of near misses interspersed with absolutely nailing it, with the balance gradually shifting from the former to the latter as you practise.

Our harmonic interludes focused in on specific chords in their ballad. This is a song they know much better, and thus it was appropriate to move away from bigger picture questions into refining individual moments.

It sometimes feels indulgent to spend 15 minutes getting one Chinese 7th sparkling with the emotional charge it is required to carry at that moment in the song. But it’s never just about that one moment, it’s about what’s happening within the singers’ heads as you go deep into that harmonic world. The intensity of listening it needs builds skill that will be available for every other chord that needs superhuman musical commitment to work. This kind of work is demanding, but you always come out of it a better musician.

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