A Fascinating Rhythmic Widget

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If you wonder why all my chorus pics are of warm-ups, that's the only time I have a moment to use the camera!If you wonder why all my chorus pics are of warm-ups, that's the only time I have a moment to use the camera!On Thursday I went down to Bristol for the first of two visits working with Fascinating Rhythm on music they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. The main challenge for the song we were working on in this first visit was getting a handle on Latin rhythms. They were at that point where they felt they were finding their way into the musical world, but not with absolute confidence.

So, what they really needed was a sense of method. It was one thing to work on the rhythms there and then with them, but I wanted to leave them with a set of steps they could go through, both in individual practice, and at subsequent rehearsals, to reconstruct the process we had gone through and so be sure in their own minds that they were getting it right. For a convincing performance, everyone involved needs to know they can make the effect happen at will.

So, I devised them a widget to build the song’s underlying clave. I knew from experience, that you can teach people clave straight off, and they get it, but when they try and do everything else that singing involves at the same time, human limits on cognitive capacity can make it feel like it's beyond them. So we needed to build the structure from the ground up and give them hooks to hang the song onto to prevent overwhelm (and/or to regroup when the brains go into meltdown).

We started with a simple vocal exercise to the words yabada-yabada-yaba-ta-ta-ta-ta (yabadas as quavers, tas as crotchets). The lyrics gave the basic clave alternation of pushbeat bar and straight bar, while the melodic contour also emphasised the accent points. We then added a gesture to this - draw a triangle in the air on each ya and then stroke up and down on the tas.

Once everyone had got the hang of these, we brought two people out to face the chorus - and this was the widget. One person was responsible for the triangle bars, the other for the stroke bars, demonstrating the gestures out front where all the rest of the singers could see them. Their role was to maintain the visual cue to help any chorus member who got themselves confused and fell out of the pattern. But equally, they could see all the rest of the chorus so if at any point they got confused and fell out of the pattern, there would be enough people still doing it to help them climb back in.

We set up the widget using the vocal exercise, since this allowed voices and hands to work together and reinforce each other while people were finding their way into the process. Once it was up and working well, we were ready to start the song.

The thing that makes singing latin rhythms more complex than doing these exercises is that the individual singer is having to hold both the background structure and the foreground melodic/lyric shapes in their heads at once. In a band, you leave the percussion section to do the clave, while you sing over the top, sometimes pulling away from it or parking off it, and other times coming together with it. In other words, while the introductory exercise had gesture and voice working in tandem, the song sometimes puts different rhythms in your mouth from those in your hands.

Of course, this is what makes the music interesting. But it’s also what uses up cognitive capacity when you are first engaging with the rhythmic world.

But having our widget out front to help all the singers keep track of the clave was like learning to swim using flotation aids. You can concentrate on how to coordinate your legs to propel you without having to manage bouyancy at the same time. The people out front demonstrating the gestures were tasked with only the gestures (with the suggestion they keep the yabadas and tas going in their heads to keep track) and not asked to sing at the same time, which gave them a bit more headspace to keep that solid to support the rest of the chorus.

We also took the song in relatively small chunks while we were working on this - long enough to get into a groove, but not so much as to put too much of a strain on cognitive stamina. And it was also quite important to go back and repeat passages before too much more music had passed to embed the discoveries about how the clave was interacting with the song’s expressive shape.

For this was the big payoff! Once you get that rhythmic structure in place, people naturally start doing all kinds of interesting expressive things with the details without having to go through and talk about each moment in turn. You get texture and life and nuance and colour just from people’s natural responsiveness to music once they’re clued into the patterns that make this happen.

We did go on to talk about expressive detail of course. But once you’ve got a rhythmic framework for this to take place in, you’ve also got a context of character, body language and purpose that also helps organise and make sense of the narratives offered by lyric, harmony and form.

This in turn, I hope, will motivate the chorus to make this rhythm their own. Any deep musical shape like this needs practising if it is to become part of the way the singers intuitively feel the song. The clave can’t just happen at rehearsal, it needs to be clicking away in the background as the kettle boils, as you wait for your photocopying to finish, as your laptop irritatingly reboots for a Windows update when you were in the middle of something. After all, ist is the stuff our brains revisit in the interstices of our daily life, the ways we fill the white space of routine activity, that becomes our expertise.

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