BAC Hat Trick

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Sunday was my third visit to Bristol A Cappella in 2016, and the last one before they sing as the first competitor in the UK’s first ever mixed barbershop chorus competition in Harrogate at the end of May. This is going to be a significant adventure for them, as whilst there is a strong core of barbershop experience in the group, the majority have no prior experience either of the specific experience of a barbershop convention, or the general experience of travelling that far and staying away from home to participate in a singing contest. But if you’re going to go on an adventure, you may as well make history while you’re at it, eh?

Our focus was thus on performance communication and mental preparation. We had a couple of technical details that needed attention, but we got them out of the way early so we could get back out of our left brains. And in the event even these turned out to be about meaning rather than technique: the notes were right but the chords weren’t locking because people were struggling to work out why they were right. Once we made sense of the progressions, the chords came into focus.

In the sessions on preparation, we talked about goal-setting and about making friends with adrenaline. Goal-setting is an interesting one in a contest where none of the competitors have any previous experience of each other or of the specific scoring system being used (details of which have not been published, but looks to be a hybrid of barbershop and local festival circuit traditions). Practical strategies for making sure your adrenaline works for you can be prepared whatever the circumstance, and it is always pleasurable to practice exercises designed to get you feeling blissed out.

A recurring these during the day was a technique that Sally McLean shared with delegates at LABBS Harmony College last month. She learned it from the White Rosettes’ coach Steve Jamison, who is a master at communicating concepts in ways that are simple and thus quick to apply, but also powerful and thus keep on giving the more you work with them. (I too have learned a lot from Steve every time I’ve seen him in action.) The concept has been on my ‘to blog about’ list for some weeks now, but I seem to have got to it in action before I’ve got around to discussing it in theory.

So, this technique is to consider a song’s expressive register as working on 3 platforms. On Platform 1, you are talking to yourself, on Platform 2, you are talking to someone in the same room, and on Platform 3, you are talking to the world. The reason I wanted to use it with Bristol A Cappella was to underpin their dynamic plan. You could hear perfectly well where they shaping things more loudly or softly, but I felt it was only happening in the dimension of amplitude, and that it would be more expressively effective with a bodily engagement to match the intensity level of volume. A concept of expression rooted in what you’re standing on seemed a useful tool to achieve this.

It didn’t deliver all the vocal support we needed all by itself (we still needed to do some standing on one leg and the like), but it was very effective nonetheless in bringing both structure and cohesion to the expressive shape of the song. What was interesting was that it wasn’t a matter of adding or changing anything they were already intending to do. I just analysed which platform it sounded like they were on at each point, and generally got the response back, ‘Yes, that fits with our idea of the song’s story’. But the act of analysis, of articulating the song in terms of this model, brought everything into focus.

There were some interesting questions about whether the singers should still be swelling and lightening the sound within each of these platforms: to which the answer is yes, please do. It’s not a matter of terraced dynamics, of blocks of sound at different levels, but expressive registers, within each of which we still need the light and shade within the narrative. And we still also needed to assert differences of colour and character: it is not the only means to articulate a song’s structure, and there can be (and are) major milestones in the story that don’t involve a change of platform.

One last thing I want to mention so I can provide a link back for reference. We spent some time with our friends the Manager and the Communicator, particularly when working on choreography, where the Manager was often on duty. When people need to think consciously about sequencing tasks, that’s what they need to do; practice is the only solution. But we can give a section several repetitions with the specific purpose of getting the Manager happy enough to hand over to the Communicator. It is very clear when you do this when people have practised it enough times to be secure.

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