Going for Green

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gsb17apr10On Saturday I was back with my friends in Sevenoaks as the first half of a double-bill weekend of coaching for Green Street Blues. They were spending the Sunday with Mark Grindall working on vocal issues, and it was good to have him around during the day so we could coordinate our to-do lists. (He also took this photo – thanks Mark!) Since I saw the chorus last September, they have acquired about 25% more singers, bronze chorus medals from LABBS and the title of Top Choir of Kent, and also – not surprisingly - a certain sense of confidence.

We spent the morning working on their new arrangement of ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ which I completed for them only this January. There’s always a frisson on this kind of occasion – for the chorus of having the arranger there to work on it, for the arranger to actually hear the music on the voices it was designed for. Both parties find it exciting, but both also can be slightly nervous, thinking: ‘gosh, I hope they like it!’

The challenge with coaching songs in this kind of brisk tempo is to find ways to bring out the detail as it flashes by. We worked with three main strategies to help with this. The first was by identifying a recurrent feature that appears throughout, so that you can sing through passages of a decent length spotting where they occur. In this case it was the use of blue notes, but it would work for anything that popped up on a reasonably regular basis. This strategy is also a good way for connecting conceptual knowledge with repertoire – the only reason for knowing what a blue note is, is so that you can enjoy it when you come across one in a song!

The second strategy was by setting up a loop. This keeps the rhythm going but repeatedly revisits the musical content so that people get multiple chances to get it right, and then to feel the confidence that comes from repeated success. Sometimes all people need is the chance to absorb something, so staying in rhythm and living with it for a while takes away the anxiety that they’ll miss it if they blink – if they miss it this time, they can catch it next time around. Once you get the loop up and going, you can also work to refine the performance on the hoof, bringin out a part here, inflecting a part there, while the chorus as a whole keeps things cooking.

The third strategy was devised specifically to draw attention to specific details that wanted a distinctive tone colour that set them apart from the rest of the texture. This is quite a cognitively complex task, but slowing things down to make the brain work easier would have made the vocal/expressive dimension harder. So what we did was sing the passage to ‘doot’, except for the details under scrutiny, which we sang to their real words. This had the effect of bringing them under the mental microscope without compromising the rhythmic feel of the song.

The afternoon saw us working on David Harrington’s arrangement of ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ There’s a passage in the second chorus in which the tune shunts between bass and lead every few notes, giving the chorus the challenge of joining it up corporately so that it sounds like a single melody. This is the challenge that all multi-voice ensembles have, of course – making the audience suspend their disbelief when they hear the word ‘I’, but see 30 faces expressing that identity. For this localized version of this question, we started off by singing the tune to the names of the parts who had each note, thus:

We then put the words back in, and had the basses and leads sing the tune, passing it back and forth between them. They matched vocal colour and expressive shape quite quickly, but it took a little more focus to achieve the same level of legato in the tuen as it switched between parts as it had within each part. Once it was sounding realistically like a single melody, we had the leads and basses sing their full parts, while maintaining this sense of handing off the tune between them. You could tell when they nailed it, because the baritones and tenors looked delighted.

The other thing we worked on with this song were the passages where the tessitura is quite high. We duetted the various pairs of parts, focusing on where different parts could offer support to make each other’s lives easier. This is effective for several reasons. First, for its avowed purpose: it helps each part to sing their line in a way that is going to be acoustically helpful for the other parts. Second, it gives a chance to explore the passage in depth but with everyone only singing half the time, so lessens the vocal tiredness you’d get by having everyone singing all along. Third, the greater insight into the detail of each others’ parts gives the singers something to think about other than how high their own is.

The big thing that came out of working on these vocally extreme moments was the interrelationship between the expressive purpose of the passages and the singing technique they required. You can’t just mark them through – at least not at the pitch, volume and pace intended for performance – because unless you have the kind of bodily and mental engagement the emotional intensity requires, you won’t have the degree of bodily engagement the voice needs to support it there. The reason why those passages have such impact in performance is precisely because they ask the singers to give so much of themselves. So if you’re going to practice the vocal projection the song needs, you also need to practice the imaginative commitment the performance needs.

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