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Winchester A Cappella Coaching Day

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Traditional warm-up shotTraditional warm-up shotI spent Saturday working with Winchester A Cappella chorus on the music they will be taking to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. The chorus welcomed a new director last year after a period of some upheaval, and now that the working relationships are getting nicely settled in they were ready for some external input.

The ballad they are learning is one I arranged for a quartet back in 2011 without intending it for barbershop contest use, but the way that the Barbershop Harmony Society has deliberately relaxed its approach to judging style in order to encourage new repertoire in the last 6 years or so has moved it from the category of ‘not really quite barbershoppy enough’ to ‘actually, this will be fine’. So it will unexpectedly bump up my tally of contest premieres come October.

I did tweak a couple of chords for them, though. Interestingly, this wasn’t so much with an eye to what the judges would do with the score, as the barbershop chord vocabulary has moved from a set of limiting prescriptions to a compendium of best practice, and as a result you hear quite a few chords accepted these days that would formerly have attracted score reductions. But chords you might use for a show audience may still distract the connoisseurs in a barbershop contest audience. I didn’t want all the barbershop nerds to start analysing sonorities at key points in the emotional narrative instead of listening to the story.

Our attention alternated over the day between artistic questions of musical flow and technical questions of voice production. Of course, some of the best exercises integrate the two. It was almost exactly a year since I first used the image of flying a magic carpet at Harmony University in Nashville as a means to explore and respond to melodic shape, and we celebrated the anniversary by applying it to a song that had nothing to do with Aladdin but has a wonderful melody.

The feedback on this exercise is almost always in terms of how it affects the way the body supports the voice: the knees unlock, the feet get more directly beneath the weight, the torso opens up and stops leaning forward. But the magic arises from the way these things all happen dynamically in response to musical needs. When you think of bodily engagement as a purely physical activity it is quite easy to over-muscularise the process. When your metaphorical adventure is shaped by melody, your muscular investment ebbs and flows to supply what the music needs, but without over-doing it.

From the other direction, bubbling started off as an exercise to enhance freedom, resonance and pitch-retention, but easily segued into a means to focus on legato and phrase shaping, and to give feedback on conducting technique. This is one where you need to get the vocal dimension working before it really starts to deliver musically. You need an embouchure and airflow that can sustain a line without giving a separate pulse to every syllable before the sound calms down enough to reveal the bumps in the director’s gesture.

Bubbling also came in handy to help loosen up the facial muscles when we had been working on reducing over-articulation. When people are first attempting to keep their jaws still (I like to use the metaphor of a ventriloquist for this) they can end up with some stiffness from trying to hold it in place. The vibrations that bubbling sends through the face serve as a form of gentle self-massage to shed this tension. Alternating bubbling with singing as a ventriloquist thus helps develop legato at both physical and imaginative levels.

Days like this often produce sentences that make perfect sense in the context that spawns them, but which you probably hadn’t expected to say. Singers reading this will probably be able to figure out why each of the following emerged, but it’s still entertaining to consider how they would come over in non-singing circumstances:

‘The tongue needs minimal muscular engagement for love’
‘Put all the passion into your lower body’

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