BeinG with BinG! Youth Chorus

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I was disappointed to discover that this didn't mean the room for singing tags: though people sang tags in there anywayI was disappointed to discover that this didn't mean the room for singing tags: though people sang tags in there anywaySome months ago, I was contacted by the BinG! Youth Chorus about doing a workshop with them while they were over in Birmingham, since they’d be singing one of my arrangements, and their event was right on my doorstep. Over time their plans changed, but we kept the date in the diary, and in the end, instead of them all travelling to the UK, I met with them in Münster; and instead of running just workshop I spent the full four days with them. And a very happy four days they were too.

It was a nicely varied long weekend. Every day involved significant chunks of chorus rehearsal/coaching time, but there was also the chance to explore the city on the Friday, a busking session in the city centre on Saturday, a Bunter Abend (open stage evening), and a couple of workshop sessions led by me and their MD Andrew Rembecki. The schedule thus combined the intensity of working together on the music every day with opportunities to refresh the attention and process the learning between sessions.

And there were also the afterglows. If you want to know what the BinG! Youth Chorus do when they’re not singing, I can tell you: they do more singing. They sing tags, they sight-read through arrangements chorus members have done, or have learned with other groups, they gather round the piano, with two people playing and 6 more singing. They get together for quartet rehearsals, to prepare for the Bunter Abend or for more ambitious, longer term goals; I don’t often find myself coaching past 11pm, but it’s no bother when all I would otherwise have been doing at the time was singing tags.

I wrote many years ago, when I was still working full-time in higher education, about the importance of play for deep learning. You couldn’t find a better illustration of this principle than these afterglows. You could hear how the collective made massive strides in musical teamwork night on night: tuning, vocal matching, coordination of timing and balance became audibly more assured each successive evening. And the following morning in rehearsal the ensemble as a whole arrived with a significant upgrade in cohesiveness and resonance on the evening before.

The one bit of the original plan that remained intact was working together on my arrangement. The chart is one I created over five years ago, and I’d not heard it sung since its premiere in 2017, so it was a funny mixture of searching for memories of intention and process, and coming to the music afresh. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure which is which: I know why a certain passage is written in a certain way, but it’s as much because that’s the kind of thing I do than because I consciously remember making the decisions.

The times I find most fun, though, are when I discover things in the music I don’t recall ever having perceived before. After the performance in the busking session, for instance, I found myself reflecting on the metrical profile of the song. Both the structure of the lyric and the melody placed the focal point of each bar in the middle rather than on the downbeat. And it turns out that the arranger had also placed the chords with more colour and/or harmonic charge in those moments. Who knew? (On reflection, I suspect she might have been taking her lead from the song-writer a lot of the time in the actual chord choices, but it was there in embellishments too, especially in the shape of the baritone line, for which she certainly can be held responsible.)

You know when you’ve found a really key analytical observation about a song, because it unlocks all kinds of intuitive artistic touches from the singers. One I found particularly magical was a pair of bars which both featured alliterative lyrics. Once we identified the mid-bar focal-point, the second word of each pair emerged with a slightly stronger initial consonant. This gave shape and life to the music, by treading lightly on the downbeat and bringing out the central pulse, while making much more nuanced use of the poetry than simply bringing out the repeated phonemes.

Another vestige of the original plan for the weekend was an invitation to singers from the UK to participate in the event, and half a dozen had been able to accept. There were opportunities, therefore, for cross-cultural silliness in the Bunter Abend. In the process we learned that German speakers are better at tongue-twisters in English than vice versa, but English-speakers get a bit closer when guessing the pronunciation of German words from the spelling than German-speakers get when trying to guess the pronunciation of British town names. (To be fair, English-speakers would guess a lot of these wrong, too.) And in the process I learned the German words for squirrel, ice-skating, wedding dress, red cabbage, and rubber duck so I feel more equipped for conversation on my next visit.

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