Arranging

On Painting with a Limited Palate

Culinary metaphors appear frequently in both my coaching and my writing about music. It’s a relatable sphere of experience – everyone has experience of eating – and I enjoy cooking as a creative endeavour in its own right.

A recent bout of covid has got me thinking about cooking as a compositional metaphor in a new way. A week after my symptoms first started that my sense of smell went on the wonk. It didn’t stop me cooking – we still needed to eat, after all, and when you’re stuck at home self-isolating, cooking is a good way to pass the time, as everyone discovered last year in lockdown.

But creating and consuming meals without the olfactory dimension is a very different experience from usual. For one thing, it made me notice anew how much I navigate my way round the kitchen by smell: judging spicing levels, gauging doneness. Now I have to work by theory rather than by feel: how much ginger would you expect a recipe to specify for this quantity?; how long should this take to cook?

Will it Shop?

My title is the name of an education session to be presented by the Nordic barbershop organisations in a week or two’s time, pre-recorded at the weekend. For those outside the barbershop bubble, this rather cryptic-looking question is shorthand for: ‘does this song lend itself readily to being arranged in a way that will meet the style criteria for barbershop contest?’ The fact that this quite specialised and complex question can be reduced down to three syllables tells you that it is a subject that often comes up in barbershop conversations.

I’m not going to tell you much detail about the content of the session, because you can go and sign up and get that directly, but I wanted to mull a bit about a few observations I made en route.

Musings on Music and Sport

musicsportSince the middle of May the peculiar circumstances of England’s covid restrictions have brought a particular cultural trope to consciousness rather more explicitly than usual. The circumstances have been that singing in groups has continued to be severely restricted while major sporting events have gone ahead, bringing us images of large crowds not only in the stadiums but also in bars, public spaces and in transit.

The trope has been the idea that music and sport are rivals for attention and resources, and that sport is often handed an unfair advantage in this competition. The trope arises in normal times primarily through issues in the scheduling of school activities, which see clashes between for example choir practice and cricket matches, with the expectation that the latter will always take precedence.

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.

Inside the Arranging Process with Cheshire Chord Company

CCCmar21On Thursday evening I joined the Cheshire Chord Company to offer a presentation on the arranging process, walking through some of the practical and artistic decisions that inform how a chart takes shape. As ever with these kinds of events, I came away far more interested in the questions than they were asking than what I had presented – after all, I knew what I was going to say in advance as I’d prepared it, but the questions take the conversation into all kinds of interesting places that I’d not necessarily anticipated.

One question that I’m often asked and find almost impossible to answer is what is my favourite chart. I’m generally poor at picking favourites of anything, but I think the reason it is particularly hard with arrangements is that every time I am arranging something for someone, for them it is their special thing. So, for the duration of the time I’m working on it, it is my special thing too. If I want the groups I arrange for to be delighted with their music, I can’t approach it as ‘just another chart’.

Thought Experiment: Can’t Get No Dissatisfaction

A recent conversation in a barbershop arrangers facebook group has got me thinking about the role of dissatisfaction in creativity. Participants were sympathising with each other over the experience of working on a chart, and knowing it isn’t yet right, but struggling to figure out how to make it work. Anybody in any creative endeavour (and I mean that in the widest possible sense) will be having a sympathetic sigh at that thought.

I initially thought my reflections would be leading to revisit the idea of decision fatigue. There are only so many decisions we can make in any one day, and one of the points of routine is to automate as many as possible to free up cognitive capacity for the projects where you want to make some new happen. The pandemic has blown all our previous-established routines out of the water, so anyone who finds themselves too tired after work to make much progress in their arranging is not failing. They’re just having their creative capacities consumed by things other than music.

And joy be to you all...

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