Team-coaching with Fascinating Rhythm

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Riser-top view of the team in actionRiser-top view of the team in actionRegular readers will know by now that Fascinating Rhythm have been leading the way amongst British barbershop choruses by bringing newly commissioned music to the contest stage every year since 2015. Last weekend was their annual retreat at which they got their teeth into their 5th consecutive new package, and for the first time they decided to invite me to coach for a day alongside their regular coach Sally McLean rather than bring us in separately as they have hitherto.

I was going to say that fortunately their regular coach and their regular arranger have very compatible approaches to music and performance, but that makes it sound like it’s luck or coincidence. Thinking about it, though, it would be more surprising if they chose people to work with regularly who had incongruent artistic attitudes.

You don’t often get the opportunity to coach in a team, not least because it takes more of a chorus’s budget at once, but it adds significant value so long as all the team members have the nous not to stand in each other’s light. The coaches get more thinking time, so you can devise your interventions with more depth and precision than when you are the only one on duty. And whilst the chorus probably ends up working harder overall (there’s less white space when one can be working with the chorus while the other thinks), this is offset by the stimulation of more variety of input.

One of the things that was rewarding for all of us was the way we found ourselves circling in on a few central themes from different perspectives. For instance, Sally had been working with the chorus on the Friday night on continuity of sound from the point of view of singing – improving the flow of the breath and removing over-articulation of the jaw. I came in wanting to working on melodic flow (aka swooshythroughiness) and the macro rhythmic structure from a musical perspective. We thus conspired to shape the trajectory and narrative coherence of the story-telling.

One of the themes the chorus had asked us to work on together, in response to feedback from previous contests, was improving their synchronisation. This sounds on the surface like quite a specific technical task: exactly how together is this singing? So I found it interesting how many different ways we found to work on this.

We started by sitting their director Jo down to listen without directing so she could hear precisely where the synchronisation was already fine and where it needed TLC. This was useful at a tactical level as a listening exercise, but at a more strategic level we wanted to relieve her of the responsibility for managing all the detail to free her up for the more interesting an nuanced artistic things that would help the chorus grow artistically.

The chorus rewarded her by stepping up to the plate and listening collaboratively much more than they had when they were relying on her, and she rewarded them in turn with some beautifully subtle eye contact that affirmed their efforts and helped them remember which details we were working on. Hearing a diminished 7th chord sparkle in perfect balance in response to a conspiratorial gleam in Jo’s eyes is a moment I shall treasure.

This exercise revealed that it was word endings at phrase boundaries that needed particular attention, so our pincer movement from singerly and musical perspectives came into play, with Sally working on breath management, and me tracing the narrative links from phrase to phrase for continuity of mental engagement. We also revisited Sally’s work on reducing over-articulation, as there were places where people were feeling the music together but weren’t getting the sounds out in time as their jaws had too far to travel.

We also spent time duetting in various combinations, then having the leads listen to the three harmony parts. Increasing everyone’s insight into how the arrangement fits together facilitates singing that is not only more accurately together, but also more expressive and intelligent. People move beyond singing their part to feeling that they are singing the whole music.

Synchronisation thus reveals itself not to be a thing in its own right, but the perceptual result of lots of different, but interrelated processes. In this respect, it is much like tuning, which I have long held to belong to the diagnostic rather than interventional process. In either dimension, you hear something that isn’t right, but you then need to take the next step of working out why it isn’t right before you start messing with what the singers are doing. If the issue was simple inattention, then drawing attention to the problem may fix it: ‘That wasn’t together, so let’s be more careful this time.’

But more often the causes are in more complex processes, possibly several interacting at once, which manifest as imperfections in the surface of the music. Trying to solve the imperfections by focusing on them is as effective as curing a disease by trying to mask the symptoms – it will take a good deal of effort for only temporary relief. Looking beyond the surface to ask, ‘What does the music need? What do the singers need?’ take you to much more interesting places, that just happen to ‘fix’ the imperfections in the process.

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