Building the Arc with Norwich Harmony

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Note that’s ‘arc’ with a C; whilst it was a bit rainy in Norfolk at the weekend, we didn’t need to construct emergency rescue vessels for us and all land mammals on this occasion. But we did have a productive time thinking about expressive musical shape and how it relates to both narrative and vocal legato.

I have visited Norwich Harmony for coaching days several times over the years, but this was the first time I joined them for a full weekend’s retreat. They had an interesting model, choosing a venue that consisted of a number of holiday cottages around a central courtyard and event room. Most of the catering was organised within the groups sharing each cottage, except for a bring-and-share dinner on Friday and a meal delivered by outside caterers on the Saturday.

This not only provided ample space for breakout activities that fostered musical bonds between chorus members, but also built social bonds in different groupings through the processes of domestic collaboration. I suspect that it was also key in the feeling that the whole chorus had contributed to making the event happen: having to coordinate meal planning and grocery shopping within each cottage group meant that nobody could just sit back and let everyone else do the thinking. And contributions from many different chorus members were evident in the logistics and planning over the whole event.

It also meant that there was an inordinate quantity of food there. People like to express love by nourishing each other, and my goodness there was a lot of love in evidence.

We were working on two songs they had commissioned me to arrange for their contest package at LABBS Convention later in the year. They have been working to a very clear concept, and it was useful to share with the chorus how the narrative and costuming choices they are already thinking about related to the process of song choice, and subsequent arrangement choices.

In particular we explored the relationship between characteristically barbershop chords that will carry specific associations for that primary audience, and colour chords that carry specific genre references related to their overall concept. The challenge had been finding songs that naturally live in the overlap area between these two stylistic worlds, and now we’d achieved that we had the opportunity to explore the expressive potential of the resultant harmonic vocabulary to create the atmospheres they want to evoke.

Before we got our teeth into that, however, we spent a considerable amount of time focusing on generating a consistently connected legato flow, or ‘joininess’ as we referred to it at the time. We did this in the first instance primarily by bubbling, which helped in a variety of ways.

First, of course, it gets the breath and voice really well-connected, which is a very healthy underpinning when you have a lot of singing to do. As the weekend went on, the brains got tired, but the voices showed no sign of strain. For our musical purposes, it allows the coach to hear exactly what’s going on with sound flow, without the distraction of any consonants. Hence, all those places where people were sneaking in extra-curricular breaths (and/or not taking them when scheduled) become immediately audible, allowing us to clarify very specifically what the plan was. This is important not just for consistency of sound, but also of expression: breath points are about meaning, not merely oxygen.

Bubbling also revealed that people were initially connecting with the music primarily through the lyric, as you could hear a little dip in engagement in the sound flow between words. Lyrics matter, of course, but we need to get our musical brains in on the act as well as our responses to linguistic meaning. In speech you don’t need to keep your attention on the length of the vowel; once you’ve started a word you take it for granted and your attention shifts to the meaning of the unfolding sequence of words. In music, the length of the entire note matters, including how it connects to the next. Making the joins between notes really joiny is how you create a real sense of melody.

And once you’ve got this established, you are in a position to shape your phrases in the short-medium range, and, in the longer-range, to shape the overall arc of your song. We spent some time exploring how the expressive shape of rubato delivery – gathering speed into the phrase, and easing out towards the end, like freewheeling down a hill and up the other side – works in tandem with other dimensions of musical energy such as dynamics and tone, correlating with features such as tessitura and harmonic oomph in the music itself.

In development of musical performance, there is always a dialogues between technique and artistry. Often the assumption is that we have to get the technique sorted before we can deal with expression, like having to eat your greens before you’re allowed any pudding. I am on record for preferring to bring artistry to the party at an early stage, not least because it helps clarify what your technique needs to achieve.

But there was a definite sense that the first hour focusing persistently on legato set up what we were subsequently able to do with colour and shape. We would have been able to have many of the musical thoughts, but without a really connected-up sound their execution would have remained partial. The artistry built upon, and relied upon fundamental technical skills.

Of course, the work itself was at no point purely technical. Bubbling feels like it belongs in the category of ‘technique’ because of its uses in developing the vocal instrument, but our use of it was couched in terms of specifically artistic goals. Smoothing out the bumps in the airflow, coordinating breath points to meaning, and remaining interested in the tone are all about creating musical beauty; the technical execution is merely the means by which we can make those imagined beauties audible.

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