NoteOrious Coaching Session
I spent Sunday afternoon with NoteOrious working with them on a new medley which I had arranged for them last year. (One of the challenges of writing this post is going to be making musically useful comments that make sense without naming the songs involved, as I don’t want to steal their thunder for when they want unleash it on an unsuspecting world.)
But it was a great moment in its development to work on it – they know it well enough that memory issues were infrequent and transient, but it’s not yet been so rehearsed that it becomes difficult to make changes. Indeed, it struck me that their depth of experience as a quartet shows as much in their capacity to respond quickly to coaching input and retain the changes as in their well-developed performance skills. They have become adept at making effective use of their coaching time.
It is a three-song medley, with a reprise of the first song, and the whole encased in an introduction and tag which reference the other two – so a reasonably large structure. The work shunted between big-picture questions of general mood-set for each section (including questions of tempo, rhythmic feel and tone colour) and detailed moments - pointing up embellishments, inflecting lyrics, dynamic shaping.
In more than one place, we were dealing with the challenge of getting a fast pace with a sense of sweep and direction, without letting a distinctly wordy surface texture get in the way. One tactic to achieve this involved manipulating the pulse points. In a 6/8 tempo, we replaced a sense of pulse on every dotted crotchet with one at the start of the 2nd and 4th bars of a phrase. This turns the pulse-point into a place you head towards instead of front-loading the phrase’s energy. (Not every song asks for this kind of treatment, but it’s quite often the solution if you find a fast tempo getting a bit bogged down.)
Another tactic was just to take the words out, and sing everything to ‘na-na-na’. This enables you to focus on harmonic shape – in this case working in units of 2 bars then accelerating to a chord per bar – rather than the passage of individual syllables and words. In an a cappella medium, a patter-like texture has the same effect as strings ‘scrubbing’ in an orchestral context. It adds energy to a build-up, but the attention needs to focus on the longer-range progression.
Another theme that emerged more than once was the way that, if you get the antecedent sorted out, the consequent looks after itself. (Or, as I am starting to think of these, if the punchline isn’t working, you need to work on the set-up.) So for example, in a section where a repetitive melody was inviting lots of fleeting changes of colour and volume to point up the lyric, an over-emphasised phrase-end came under control when the immediately preceding two half-bars were more distinctly characterised. And once some negotiation over pacing of the very start had come to a conclusion that kept everyone happy, the second half of the intro just came alive of its own accord.
One thing I found striking as we put the whole back together towards the end of the afternoon was that it no longer sounded like a particularly long piece. This was partly no doubt because we had increased the pace in certain sections, so it actually took less time to sing. But it was also because all the fleeting and subtle details in the performance were keeping me entertained on the way past. Time was flying because I was having fun.
And a lot of that fun was because of the singers’ pleasure in the expressive moments, which successfully distracted them from feeling the length of the journey. Large musical structures (especially at fast tempi) can feel like a relentless hack down the motorway. But you’ll usually find a few places to visit en route to liven it up, with some nice views and a game of car cricket in between.