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Sculpting a Story with Bristol A Cappella

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Traditional warm-up picTraditional warm-up picI spent last Sunday with my friends at Bristol A Cappella helping them in their preparation for the Irish Association of Barbershop Singers Convention next month. As with my last visit, they had spent the previous day with Sandra Lea-Riley working on the Performance dimension of the package, which this time included the most ambitious choreography the group have embarked on to date.

Sandra had helped them refine their concepts and sharpen up their execution, but at the point I arrived they still needed more time on it to get it embedded. My remit was therefore to help them reconnect their visual performance with their vocal performance.

We went about this working backwards through the song in chunks of a couple of pages at a time. The rationale for starting at the end is to deal with the stamina issues – both mental and physical - people experience when working on a substantial piece of music that requires significant inputs of energy in performance. If you work the final section first, you are always working from the less familiar towards the more familiar, so the road gets easier to travel as you go, rather than harder, giving your performance a natural forward momentum.

Taking a chunk and repeating it several times, adding one extra refinement each time was also a means to give the singers plenty of repetition opportunities for the moves, but gradually weaning their attention away from the control of their limbs and back onto the musical communication the choreography is there to support.

Many of the refinements we added were about sculpting the form of the song, developing the contrasts so that the different stages in its narrative became clearer. It is easier to build through a passage if you give yourself a steeper gradient from the start of the phrase, and passages that drive have more impact when they are set into relief by passages that float.

We also applied a brass timbre to several key moments in the song, which both helped draw a long and complex form into a perceptual whole and gave a means to make the turning points in its journey stand out. At the very end of the song, when their director Iain was indicating an extra layer of intensity on the last chord, we added an imaginary timpani roll under the brass, which added the drama they wanted without pushing the voices.

The cliché that the sound suffers when you add choreography is primarily an issue of attention – it just hijacks the brains so people aren’t thinking about their singing while they learn it. But the way people do the moves will inevitably affect the voices, and the goal is to have the physical performance aid rather than hinder both musical intentions and vocal production.

A useful way to test for this is to do the move while singing a unison oo. You can hear immediately if the move is adversely affecting your sound quality, and if you keep doing it, you can also hear when you have adjusted your execution so it doesn’t.

At the end of the day, after some work on their ballad, we returned to the up-tempo song, and worked through it to revise our morning’s work, this time starting at the beginning. We took it in slightly longer sections this time, and after each, I invited the singers to identify what they had remembered to do from our morning’s work.

Quite often this elicited various things that they had realised a split second too late that they had forgotten. But a couple of extra runs at each section offered everyone the opportunity to pick up and nail the bits that initially got away. I needed to offer very little input here – there were maybe one or two things that had been forgotten that nobody else identified, and a small handful of things done well that needed celebrating explicitly – but the whole point of revision is for those doing the revising to be in control of the knowledge.

And you could see this control developing not just in the way the chorus more consistently achieved the things we had been working on, but in the way they were starting to use the choreography to tell the story. At the start of the day, unsurprisingly, their eyes were full of concentration: they were thinking about the mechanics of what they needed to do, and what was in their thoughts showed on their faces.

In our final run-through of the day, we saw a lot more of the narrative in the faces. The eyes were alight with pleasure in the story, and with a sense the purpose as the singers created the musical surprises, rather than being surprised by them. And they were starting the process of becoming creative with the choreography, making the learned gestures part of their own personal expressive armoury.

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