Musicking with the White Rosettes

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This may prove to be a tricky post to write. Not for any emotional complications – it tells of an entirely cheerful and purposeful occasion – nor for conceptual conundrums – we all knew what we were doing and we did it well. The problem is the entirely practical one of how do I write an account of a coaching session that was pretty much entirely about specific musical detail without actually talking about the music?

I run into this problem to an extent every time I go to coach an ensemble on a new arrangement that they will want to reveal at some point in the future, but there’s usually some generalisable technical points to distract you with while I’m avoiding naming the song. Is vagueblogging a thing?

And of course it would be unthinkable to go and work with the UK’s most consistently successful barbershop chorus and not blog about it. That would be silly.

So, what can I tell you about my Wednesday evening with the White Rosettes? One of the things that made what was always going to be a mutual lovefest particularly special was that easy-to-name but not always easy to achieve quality of ‘suitability to performer’. The singers love their new contest uptune, and so many of them told me that they found astonishingly quick to learn.

As their arranger, I take this compliment. I spend a lot of time ‘combing’ arrangements to make sure that everyone’s line is something they can sing from their heart without needing to keep their technical brains hovering to manage the detail. ‘Quick to learn’ tells me I’ve done my job here properly.

But that’s not the only quality that will inspire a chorus to love a chart. Years ago I heard David Wright talk about making sure a chart contained a specific technical challenge that would lift the ensemble, that would make them reach. As the theory of Flow tells us, too hard makes people anxious, too easy makes them bored. Hit the sweet spot where challenge matches capacity, and people engage and grow.

In theory I should be taking this compliment as well, but my conscious brain is currently shrugging and saying that maybe my intuition did a decent job, but I wasn’t conversantly aware of it during the arranging process. The voices in my head as I arranged were the White Rosettes, and I was aware of asking their basses in particular to be a bit more nimble in places than bass lines often need to be, but mostly the arrangement process was driven by what the song was asking me to do.

But it turns out that what the song asks for matches very nicely what the Rozzers have been working on of late. Partway through the evening I complimented them on the way they are starting to transcend that quality of glorious sound (which they have been showcasing in increasing levels of beauty for years) to explore a more artistically interesting range of colours. There’s a particular look a director gives you when you name as something her singers are doing well the thing she has been featuring as a growth goal for them, and I saw it then.

Well, let’s dig into that compliment, I thought. The greater variety of colour brings more texture to the sound. I got the look again, intensified. Then I bottled out – better stop naming musical qualities while the telepathy still appears to be working. At this point, her lead section leader tried to give the compliment back to me – the arrangement is asking for it, she said, it invites that kind of variety.

Which was nice of her, but since we’ve already established that the arrangement choices were largely driven by what the song demanded, this points us back to the fundamental point of song choice. Whatever I do as an arranger, the song itself, and the ensemble’s relationship with it, remains the primary determinant of a chart’s suitability to them.

And the White Rosettes’ choice here was a stroke of genius. It has all the qualities that they are known for in their uptunes – opportunities for glamour and pizzazz and exhilarating sweep. But it also has depth; it raises the emotional temperature of that classic barbershop sparkle, and gives it extra significance. I realise this is the point at which it really gets annoying being vague about the song, but I can tell you this: it achieves this extra dimension through the use of metaphor. The rest you’ll have to wait for until they perform it.

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