A Cappella

Pitch and Paraverbal Expression

Last summer, Stefanie Schmidt visited the Telfordaires to lead a really interesting workshop on paraverbal markers: those elements of speech that don’t show up in written words but which carry so much extra information. Salience, attitude, strength of feeling, context all shine through in the inflections with which we pronounce anything we say.

A lot of singing technique involves, in the initial stages, learning to strip out the accidental lumps and bumps that these markers can insert into the vocal line. Two key elements of an effective legato are getting the tone running consistently through all notes, not just the ones that carry sense-laden meaning, and controlling consonants so they don’t add scoops or cut short vowels.

But the texts we sing still carry meaning, so part of learning to operate our voices at will is to be able to decide when and how to use paraverbal elements paramusically: articulation, timbre, dynamics.

Soapbox: Technical Difficulty is not the Same as High Standards

soapboxToday’s opinion piece arises from a conversation about an arrangement I was helping an ensemble with recently. They liked the song but were concerned that the chart might be too hard for them. My view was that the arranger had placed quite a lot of unnecessary obstacles in their path.

Ah yes, came the reply, but that arranger is working with [an ambitious up-and-coming group] and sets the bar high.

I’m not saying what the chart was, or who the people involved are, as it’s really not about them personally, it’s about the ideas that emerged in this exchange. There are any number of other examples that I could be equally opinionated about, it’s just this one sparked me to return to writing on a theme long-time readers will have seen before.

A Day of British Barbershop Director Education

Moments from the LABBS eventMoments from the LABBS event

Saturday saw the best weather we’ve had round here all year, so of course I ended up on Zoom for hours instead of sitting out in the sunshine. The afternoon was taken up by the LABBS Directors Education day, on the theme of returning to live rehearsals. We’d set this theme months ago, before the roadmap was published with no idea that our date would actually fall two days before a major announcement about the next step. One of our guest speakers, Prof Martin Ashley, quoted my email to invite him from back in February:

…we don't know of course exactly where we'll be by June, but some kind of live musicking will almost certainly be allowed by then, although not yet back to what one might call 'normal'

Which as predictions go is about as spot-on as I’m ever likely to achieve again!

BABS Virtual Convention 2021

It is very strange being at home for the last weekend in May; for the last 25 years I have usually spent it in a town which hosts a large convention centre, missing the start of the summer weather to huddle indoors with a couple of thousand other people bingeing on barbershop music. This year, while it is not yet possible to convene safely in large numbers, especially indoors, we were still able to binge-watch barbershop at home, courtesy of the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ Virtual Convention.

The event filled most of the time slot it would usually occupy, starting on Friday afternoon and running all day and evening Saturday and Sunday. It also preserved the combination of contributions from member choruses and quartets, offerings from international guests, participatory events, education, and items that celebrated the ongoing life of the organisation such as long-service awards.

Coaching Focus on Re-Opening: Reconnecting and Rebuilding

Having announced in my last post that I am ready to welcome individuals and small ensembles for coaching, I thought it might be useful to work through some of the things that people might need to work on at this moment. We have all made heroic efforts to stay in touch and make what music we can over the past year, and small ensembles have at least had the chance to meet up outdoors during the spring to start rebuilding.

Still, there are lots of ways in which we will be feeling the effects of such a long hiatus in our regular musicking, and I have been giving a lot of thought to what people are likely to need help with, and how I can support them in this rebuilding process. The key areas I have identified are as follows:

Opening Up (Literally) for Coaching

Opening up for ventilationOpening up for ventilation

Now that up to 6 people can meet indoors in England, and non-professional singing groups of up to 6 can also re-start indoor rehearsing, I am once again able to welcome individuals and small ensembles for coaching. I’ll send you a copy of my formal risk assessment on booking, but here are the key safety measures I’ll have in place to protect us all:

Executive Summary of Barbershop, Part 2: the Overtone

In my last post, about my talk on barbershop for Scunthorpe Choral Society, we got to the point where someone asked a really good question, and then it all got too long to answer in one blog post. So we are resuming here, refreshed, and having had a bit more thinking time to consider the question: can you generate the characteristic audible overtones of barbershop expanded sound/lock and ring when making a multi-track recording with yourself?

I’m always a bit slow when thinking about the physics of sound, not least because when given the choice at university, I opted to study Italian for a year instead of acoustics, thinking it would be more useful for a singer. But I’ve learned some stuff since, and my understanding of timbre, vowel perception, and the harmonic series makes me think that in theory, yes, you should be able to do this. The overtones fall well within the range of audible sound picked up by microphones, so the frequencies to be reinforced are clearly present in the sound. Moreover, you’d think that one person singing all the parts has a head start on getting the sound well-matched.

Executive Summary of the World of Barbershop

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Last Thursday an invitation from Scunthorpe Choral Society had me giving a short presentation on barbershop choruses as part of their ongoing series of visiting speakers. I was given the remit of talking about what is different in barbershop from other choirs (there’s lots in common too of course), and with a time slot of 15 minutes, it made me think quite ruthlessly about what were the essentials to share.

So, I started off with a whistlestop account of the genre’s origins and history, which for these purposes could fit into 6 moments:

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