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Barbershop Actually!

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I forgot to take a pic on Friday, but this one is nicer than anything I'd have managed!I forgot to take a pic on Friday, but this one is nicer than anything I'd have managed!

Friday evening brought the quartet Barbershop Actually! over for a coaching session. They are preparing for the mixed quartet contest to be held in Llandudno at the end of October, so are at a stage where they have a reasonably settled concept of what they’re doing with their songs. Our task therefore was get the most of that concept – the polishing, rather than the exploration phase.

There are certain exercises that never stop giving. An early session of bubbling gave all its usual benefits: by connecting the voice securely with the breath and increasing the continuity of resonance, it brought clarity to the sound and made it much easier to hear the detail. It can sometimes be tricky to coordinate the ensemble when you take out the word sounds - indeed, this is another of the useful ways bubbling makes a group work, in a musical rather than vocal dimension. So we found that taking a single phrase, then alternating it in bubbling and with word sounds helped everyone find their way round it.

Duetting is another rehearsal technique that people intend to use, but don’t always get around to. It is almost shocking how much difference it can make in a short time, though, so I’ll not tire of my advice to move it from the ‘we should get around to this’ pile to the ‘part of what we do every time we sing together’ bucket. And remember – it’s in the listening that the real magic happens.

We also had some interesting discoveries about the relationship of rhythm and tempo. They were singing their uptune with a nicely ingrained sense of backbeat, but after a couple of pages it was starting to sound rather slower than the sprightly tempo they had started with. Investigation revealed a pattern of micro-delays in the execution, none of which were significant enough to disturb the feel of the pulse, but cumulatively they gradually increased the length of the beat to a point where it was perceptibly slower.

A metronome app is useful in this situation. Occasionally this is enough to make the correction and keep everyone to the same tempo they started at, but more often, as here, the practised pacing takes over and it isn’t possible just to keep with the metronome at will. This is why some people find them irritating to work with. But they come into their own when you stop using them as a means to try and force yourself into a different mould, and start using them diagnostically. Where, exactly, did we come adrift from its framework? What’s going on there in the music to make this happen?

In this case, it was a series of short phrases with breath points in between that leapt out as a key moment – each breath was taking slightly too long. (It is likely that other breath points were also behaving like this, but it showed most clearly where they came quick and fast.) Fortunately, this passage also featured a walking bass-line that glued these phrases together, so giving the bass the job of driving forward the tempo at these moments kept the other three parts in tempo.

It’s a bit like the old remedy of rubbing with a dock leaf for nettle-stings – the antidote conveniently grows near to the problem. (I have no idea if this actually works, by the way, or whether it is just a useful way to distract children from the pain. In adulthood, the combination of greater fortitude, tougher skin and better observation when out walking means it's years since I've felt the need to do anything other than ignore nettle stings. Still it makes a good metaphor.) If there’s a moment in the music that’s proving tricky for some people, it’s very useful to look nearby for something that another part is doing that will help solve the problem.

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