Dynamic Times with Norwich Harmony

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On Monday evening I zoomed in for an hour with the Music Team of Norwich Harmony. They are in the process of learning one of my arrangements and wanted to talk through several aspects of it as a way of both verifying and deepening their understanding of the music. They chose an ideal moment to have the session – they all clearly know the song well enough to know what kinds of questions it asks of them, but are still fluid in their conception of it.

A theme that came up in a couple of contexts was dynamic shaping. One team member remarked on the way the sheet music doesn’t contain any explicit indications (‘there aren’t any Ps and Fs’ is how she put it), but the music clearly doesn’t want to just to be all at one level.

This led into a discussion of how barbershop is rather like baroque music in the way it mostly leaves dynamic shaping up to the performers, expecting them to make inferences from musical shape about how it should be delivered. And in a chorus situation you can do a lot of that work within the music itself – everyone is after all responding to the same piece of music, and so if everyone sings it the way they feel, you’ll find a lot of the shaping comes naturally.

You may still have to negotiate if there are places with potentially conflicting possibilities, but that’s what your musical director is for, to decide between the multiple possibilities and help align everyone’s intuitions.

The usefulness of approaching shaping implicitly as much as possible is that you get much more opportunity for nuance and micro-shaping as well as big-picture patterns of intensity or intimacy. The team talked about the feeling of a wave-pattern within the flow of the music – this is the kind of thing that Elgar would mark in with lots of small-range hairpins, which always make me feel a bit seasick. If you follow the shape of the music and let it do to your voice what it’s asking to do, you’ll get the same result without having it all over-controlled by your technical brain.

Another discussion that I particularly enjoyed was when we were talking about the transition between two sections, and the exchange of ideas led me articulate the thought that the rest between phrases there needed to be performed as a quiet rest, not a loud rest. Of course, all rests actually silent, but from an expressive perspective, this apparently contradictory statement made perfect sense.

The discussion worked through how the impact of a rest is of course a function of what happens immediately before and after it – but you can only achieve the shaping thus implied by thinking about the expressive character of the rest itself.

It also got me thinking afterwards about the nature of dynamics in general. You will have noticed that, even when talking about them directly, I am very sparing with words like ‘loud’ and ‘quiet’, as I have always preferred to talk about expressive purpose over mere volume of sound. But when you focus in on the dynamic impact of different silences is when you notice that even terms we think of as literal, concrete descriptors are also, in their way metaphors. And how the term ‘dynamics’ – so often reduced to is Ps and Fs - is about so much more than mere amplitude. ‘Dynamics’ are about how a piece lives, moves, exists in a state of becoming. If we understand music in those terms, the volume levels look after themselves.

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