Exploring Recurrent Themes with Bristol A Cappella

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Some days you find similar concepts coming up repeatedly in different musical contexts; Saturday was such a day with my friends at Bristol A Cappella. One of the advantages of days like this is that you find people get quicker at applying the concepts on successive encounters, and indeed that after a while you no longer have to point out where they need to apply them, as they’re figuring it out for themselves.

One theme for the day was of staying with a note right to the end of the phrase. Linguistically, the brain pretty much moves on when you get to the last syllable of a sentence; in general conversation we don’t tend to elongate them, but go straight to drawing breath for the next utterance. But when singing, it is very audible when the attention has moved on, even if people are holding the note for the notated length. You have to stay interested in it for the tone to retain integrity.

We explored this first in a song where people were mostly all breathing at the same time. Here, staying with the note gave rhythmic propulsion over the phrase boundaries, bringing the breath points alive. We then moved on to a song that had a lot of overlapping phrase boundaries. It had originally been arranged for a quartet, and the strategy was clearly intended to secure continuous sound while still giving all singers realistic opportunities to breathe.

Once you make a feature of these overlaps, you get a real sense of flow and momentum. Indeed, one sign that you’re achieving their intended effect is that it becomes very hard to find a place that makes musical sense to stop or start for all singers. We took to labelling these moments ‘McAlexander Overlaps’ after the arranger – not that Patrick invented the technique, of course, just that he used it so pervasively in this chart. (We then briefly reflected that ‘the McAlexander Overlap’ sounds like it might be a phenomenon in particle physics, or possibly a chess gambit.)

We also found ourselves considering the shapes of crescendi and diminuendi in multiple contexts. One key point (which I first saw articulated in these terms by Henry Coward) is that each wants to start gradually and then increase as it goes on. You don’t want to change too much too soon, or you’ll be flatlining by the end of the phrase. Another is to make sure you give yourself room to arrive at your intended dynamic level at the key moment by not starting too big or too small: it’s the change rather than the absolute volume level that creates the interest.

A related point emerged when we were actually focused on harmonic shape rather than expressive shape per se, but it turns out that the two are related – who knew? We were identifying the key moments where the arranger had added in some specifically barbershoppy chords to make the song suitable for contest purposes, and found that, whilst we may have focused in on them for tactical purposes (it’s important that they are brought to the attention of Music judges who get twitchy if they don’t hear enough secondary dominants), they did some interesting things to a phrase’s communicative impact.

Adding harmonic charge with the insertion of a II7 chord before your dominant, gives the phrase an injection of energy, a sense of lift. If you just sing through this as if it were a diatonic chord, the V7 that follows is apt to sound a bit forced or out of place. If you respond to the harmonic lift of the secondary dominant, then the arrival of the V7 feels more like a natural resolution, even when you’re left with the open ending of an imperfect cadence.

The other thing that happens when you start exploring the relationship between musical shape and communicative impact is that you get greater integrity of vocal tone. There are physical dimensions to this – if you commit to singing to the end of the phrases, your subsequent breaths become more deep-set, thus encouraging a cleaner contact between the vocal folds. But I think it’s also something to do with expressive intent. The more you are mentally and emotionally engaged with the message of your song, the more of yourself you involve in the act of singing. Which is also a physical point in its way of course, but you don’t necessarily experience it like that while singing. But it’s always gratifying when vocal integrity and tonal integrity follows artistic integrity.

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