Bristol A Cappella: Next Steps

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And this is why I chose that warm-up pic for my last post...And this is why I chose that warm-up pic for my last post...

Last time I worked with Bristol A Cappella, they were preparing for the mixed barbershop chorus contest at BABS Convention in May. This performance went very well, and they were rewarded with significantly higher scores than their first attempt the previous year. Buoyed up by this success, they are striding purposefully into the future with plans to participate in several competitions over the next six months or so.

The first of these is the Nailsea Festival later this month, in which they are entering two classes. This visit we revisited briefly their material from BABS for the barbershop class, but focused most of our efforts on a set of two songs, arranged and directed respectively by their director Iain Hallam and their assistant director, James Horsburgh.

Both these arrangements feature the varied textures of contemporary a cappella, and a lot of our attention was focused on clarifying the textures so that the lyric-carrying parts could communicate at an appropriate expressive register without having to fight their way through the other parts.

One aspect of this was for the singers delivering the melody to be very clear about the moment when they took over that role. While the melody stays with one set of singers, the audience latch onto them, visually and aurally, to follow the narrative. It is at the moments of hand-over that they risk losing the thread while they figure out where to direct their attention.

Another aspect is making everyone responsible for communicating the lyric, whether or not they are singing it themselves. When they do this, you not only get an improved balance, as the people on accompanying parts naturally balance to the melody, but you also get enhanced expression. Vocables and sustained notes can be sung with nuance and emotional awareness, and participate in the story-telling, and people will intuitively do this when they’re thinking about the meaning of the song.

Communicating a lyric is partly about articulation: giving the consonants enough energy to be clear over a complex texture. But it’s also about intent. When you rehearse a song enough to perform it, you get used to the words, you forget the impact they have the first time you hear them. Much of our task was reflecting on the content of the lyrics, of noticing how distinctive and interesting the imagery is, of where the jeopardy lies. Why should anybody care about the song?

You still need to articulate the text, of course, but it is the intent that communicates. If all you do is energise the consonants, people hear the technique. If you care about the message, people hear the song anew. The audience experience you’re after is when listeners turn to each other and ask, ‘Was that song always that poignant? I never noticed before!’

I last coached James as a director on my first visit to BAC back in 2015. It was impressive how much he has developed in the interim. He has eliminated a lot of distractions from his gestures, and is not only no longer distracting the singers, but has also cleared out space for himself to really open his ears.

We removed a couple of remaining distractions this time (it is impossible to tap your foot in time with your own conducting pattern), and then I worked on balancing the musical texture by directing his attention to its various layers. When you have a group of singers all capable of singing their lines well and a director with a deep and intelligent understanding of how those lines fit together, you can sort out the gestalt most efficiently by working on the interface between the conductor’s ears and imagination. The conducting gesture responds by getting increasingly contained, precise and natural, and the sound comes alive.

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