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Continuing the Journey with Norwich Harmony

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Obligatory warm-up action picObligatory warm-up action pic

One of the joyful things about being invited to work with a group several times over the course of a few years is the opportunity to see them develop. I have visited Norwich Harmony in late Spring or early summer before, but I don’t recall hearing them sounding so assured on the music they are preparing for the autumn at this stage previously. It wasn’t just that the singing was clean and resonant, with very few details getting smudged, it was that everyone seemed up-for-it and undaunted by any challenge I threw at them. This is a very satisfying way to spend a Saturday.

I asked their director Alison Thompson to what she could attribute this upgrade in achievement, and she talked through various areas of specific technical skill they had been working on. Behind this, though, were more fundamental points: having the confidence that she had found an approach that would work for them, and being relentless in her pursuit of them.

One of our first themes was to find the phnerts and get them working expressively for them. We used a method that I think I have used with them before, but not often with other people: getting both parts in the phnert to sing the two notes in alternation together until they were matched in tone and feel, and both parts clearly understood the relationship between them. Then we had them sing the upper note together, and the upper part hold while the lower walked down to sound the major 2nd clash.

Working through these details brought us to the bigger point: that they are at a stage in their development when they need to move beyond singing their own parts to that sense of singing the whole musical texture. You can tell when people are willing to take that leap when you hear them bringing out phnerts that you hadn’t specifically worked on.

Another theme that arose in several contexts was committing to sing through phrases, without sneaking in unscheduled breaths or letting the sound dip. In some cases it was where one line might feel a natural break, but the other parts made it clear the music needed to continue through, while in others it was a phrase structure that featured longer note values heading into the cadence.

Either way, it wasn’t simply a matter of not breathing in certain places, but rather of articulating the reasons why it was important to join them together. From a vocal perspective, closing words early to sneak a breath affects both synchronisation of word sounds and continuity of resonance. From a musical perspective, connecting these places together secures the harmonic colour of interesting chords. Also, since we had established in our previous work together that the most interesting part of a long note is just as it ends, finishing early would throw away the best bit.

From a communicative perspective, joining the words together into sentences brings the meaning to the fore. Since in speech you generally take breaths at the point where you need to decide what to say, breathing just before the end of a phrase gives the impression that you hadn’t fully decided that this was what you wanted to communicate, and thus undermines the message. Conversely, once you commit to singing the phrase in full without cheating, you have to dig deeper, and that sense of purpose gives fire and moral authority to your performance.

We also played with a new metaphor for the kind of physical grounding and musical responsiveness I have previously invited people to find by riding a flying carpet. I am not going to tell you what this new metaphor is, though, as it would give away the theme of their contest set and spoil their big reveal in October. You’ll want to be there to see it, though, if you’re at LABBS Convention in October, not just for the metaphor but to hear them sing an arrangement that is not only the premiere of the chart, but also I believe the LABBS début for the arranger.

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