Swinging with Revival
Saturday brought Revival quartet over for a coaching session in preparation for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers quartet prelims in June. This is a quartet that is recently formed, but brings together a lot of experience, each of the singers having sung in previous champion quartets within the association. Indeed, three of them had come here for coaching with previous quartets, so from my perspective it felt more like a reunion than a revival!
Our focus was on swing song that was in good general shape, both in terms of technical control and musical characterisation, and so ripe for bringing its detail to life. The starting-point for swing is inevitably rhythmic shape: back-beat, swung quavers, flavour/feel of the groove in dialogue with tempo. Interestingly, though, once that framework is secure (which, with a couple of momentary exceptions, it was here) you find yourself working a lot more with texture and orchestration.
This in turn brings up one of the big challenges of contest barbershop: how to keep it varied when you have strict limits on both texture and orchestration. You are allowed four voice parts, and they must all be singing the same rhythm for much of the time. Textural effects are thus relegated to the role of ‘embellishment’ rather than structure. You can rail against this if you must, but you can also recognise that these constraints facilitate some of the genre’s most creative work in both arrangers and performers. Much of our work involved teasing out the ways the arranger, Kevin Keller, has used voicing and harmonic choices as well as fleeting details of texture change to signal opportunities for colouring the song’s narrative.
And this is where thinking in terms of swing orchestration really helps. The contrast between the legato of saxophone melody and the punctuation from the horn section can make sense both of interjections mid-phrase and phrase-end echoes that elevate them from a rhythmic-fill function to moments of genuine excitement. Indeed, often the issue was to recognise where to get rid of the trumpets to ensure that when they came back they would have a genuine impact.
We also had fun noticing where the arrangement shifted from a backward-looking embellishment strategy to a forward-looking one, and how that affected its sense of drive. Issues of tempo control also emerged here, though: it is tempting, but unwise, to get faster in response to increased energy. It was useful to identify both the places which define the upper limits of viable tempo, and places prior to those moments where you can consciously take control to be sure you arrive at the busiest moments at a sensible speed!
It is always interesting when four experienced quartet singers form a new ensemble. There are all sorts of benefits the experience brings them, but they still have to do all the groundwork of turning four individual voices and personalities into a single coherent ensemble. There is the vocal dimension: matching resonance, matching vowel shapes, creating expanded sound. There is also the expressive dimension: feeling musical shape together, sharing body language, breathing together.
There is no shortcut for doing this work, however skilled the singers are. But experience brings with it a knowledge of methods and techniques to achieve an effective ensemble, as well as both an awareness of what is needed and the confidence that it can be done. As a result, quartets of experienced singers probably do get through this groundwork more efficiently than they did in their earlier ensembles, simply because they have a clearer concept of the task, and thus spend less time exploring blind alleys.
As a coach, the thing I notice most that experience brings is in working style. This is something I had in my notes to blog about after LABBS Harmony College, having seen The Mix coached under glass. I’ll mention it here as the two main observations are also true of Saturday’s session with Revival.
First, experience of high-level work shows in the capacity to retain changes as the session proceeds. Yes, we sometimes had to go back and say, ‘but also remember...’ but when we did, the singers could access the memory of previous work and apply it. There was very little rubber-band effect of reverting back to habit on things we’d already worked on as we moved onto something new.
Second, there was a strong sense of personal responsibility, without blame and without shame. People owned their errors, but didn’t agonise over them. ‘I need to [specify what will make it better]’ generates a much more efficient working environment than apologising for mistakes. In fact, writing this down now makes me wonder if this attitude is the key to the first point. An internal locus of control in your relationship with the process probably affords you a lot more control over your actual performance.