Miscellaneous Thoughts on Vocables

This post arises from a collection of random notes in my Thinking Book and conversations on social media, none of which were substantial enough to make a post of their own, but would if bundled together. So, a bit of a miscellany, but at least a themed one.

Vocables are the nonsense/neutral sysllables we use in a cappella to create accompanying textures. They are sometimes intended to evoke instrumental textures explicitly, but they’re often simply about creating a distinctive expressive profile for a song and providing expressive variety over the course of the musical narrative.

Change vocable when you change pattern

One of the things that takes up an awful lot of rehearsal time when working with human beings, especially human beings who work in idioms that involve memorising music, is handling the bits where a pattern changes. You set up a riff, and then some pesky musical detail like how the melody goes or a change in chord means you have to mess with it – in the process, messing with the singers’ heads just as they’d got settled into their stride.

Exploring Arrangement Choices with Amersham A Cappella

A topically sports-themed warm-upA topically sports-themed warm-up

Tuesday evening took me back to coach my friends at Amersham A Cappella on some of the new songs they’re working on. They seem to be in a particularly up-for-it and life-affirming mood right now in their repertoire choices, with anthems from Erasure and Aretha Franklin on the go as well as an exuberant number I arranged some years ago for Finesse quartet.

A recurrent theme of the evening was exploring the impact of who the music was arranged for on the arrangement choices. A fair number of the chorus had known Finesse, either in terms of hearing them perform, or knowing the individual singers personally. So it was useful for them to know that this was one of those charts where I’d been thinking not of the tenor, lead, bari and bass lines, but of the Helen, Beth, Tanya and Nicky lines. Handing round the melody wasn’t just a matter of seeing where the range fit best, but also of thinking about the personality and vocal colour of those individuals.

LABBS Quartet Prelims 2022

Seeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social mediaSeeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social media

On Saturday, The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers held the preliminary contest for quartets to qualify to compete at Convention in the autumn. With 31 quartets competing for 16 places, it felt like the quartet scene is in good shape, and there were a good many new ones who have formed since we last convened in person in 2019. Many of the quartets stayed on for the Sunday to receive extended evaluations-cum-coaching sessions, a model that encapsulates the philosophy at the heart of LABBS contest system: that competing is a means for growth, and that education is an inherent part of the cycle.

A friend I ran into during the first break remarked that he always wonders, seeing me at the events, what I’m going to write about in my blog after it. This made me laugh, because at that point I was wondering the exact same thing! As it happens, two observations rose to the top as the day went on.

Soapbox: On Rhyme Schemes

soapbox One of the things I came away from two Conventions’-worth of binge-listening with was a strong opinion about the writing of original lyrics. There is a clear right way and wrong way to do this and a lot of people seem to be unnecessarily choosing the latter.

So, you know how you write jokes? You do the set-up first, and once people have all the information they need to get the joke, you deliver the punch-line, preferably ending with the word that creates the laugh, or at most one or two words after it. This is the principle that drives the writing of non-funny material too: you land on the most important point at the cadence-point.

BABS & EBC Conventions – Reflections on New Music

It is time to start marshalling some of the thoughts I’ve been having about the music I’ve heard at my first two in-person barbershop conventions since 2019. One of the interesting bits of context for this is of course that at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Category School in 2019, the Music Category came away with a slightly less ‘anything goes’ approach to style, but then coronavirus came in before that decision could be enacted in live contests.

So we were coming into these conventions with an extra 2-3 years' arranging time, but no real case law to see how that policy tweak would play out. As it happens, I heard tell of only one case of an explicit score reduction for style in the contests in Sweden, but it did not discernibly disrupt the overall scoring profile – you wouldn’t have guessed it from just looking at the numbers. So for the various other charts that I thought might have been on the windy side of the style, there may also have been some score reductions, but likewise of a magnitude that inflects rather than devastates the Music score, and thus not immediately sending out a ‘don’t go there’ message to other competitors.

On Arranging for Female Voices, Part 2: Vocal Behaviour

In my previous post about the differences in arranging for male and female voicings, I reflected on how little opportunity you get for genuinely tight voicings for ensembles working in lower registers. One of the things that brought this into focus for me recently was a conversation about a specific arrangement written in the women’s key, explaining why I didn’t feel it would work transposed down for a men’s group. The closely-voiced chords that bring spritz and joy in the higher register would become cloudy and unclear lower down.

Today’s subject has also provided a reason to decline to transpose particular arrangements down for men, though I’ve tended to remain somewhat veiled in my explanations for the decision. ‘It wouldn’t work well in the lower key’ is a kinder thing to say than, ‘I don’t think men will be able to sing that’.

So, what is it that I doubt men’s capacities to perform effectively? And why do I harbour that doubt?

On Arranging for Female Voices

There have been a number of productive conversations recently in the Barbershop Arrangers’ Facebook group about arranging for women’s voices, and why you can’t just transpose an arrangement for men up a 4th or a 5th and expect it to sound good. We can thank Amanda Nance for starting us off, and a good number of my fellow female arrangers have piled in sharing best practice.

Examples of things to consider have included: voicing the chords more tightly than you would for men, keeping the bari line below the lead more than above it, and care of tessitura, in particular not keeping tenors in the upper part of the range all the time, and ditto for the lower 3rd of the basses’ range. Just summarising these here so that when the detail of the discussions have been buried under the weight of subsequent threads, I’ve got a record of the key things shared at the time.

Bellchord Hacks

Having spent a post earlier this month being opinionated about how to render arpeggiated textures in a cappella arranging, I thought it might be useful to offer some practical tips on my preferred solution, the bell chord. After all, while it gets round pretty much all the difficulties presented in singing arpeggios, it does have its own challenges.

These challenges chiefly involve how to coordinate the parts. A keyboard player or guitarist will find it easy to play each sound source in quick succession because the means to play them (i.e. their fingers) are all operated by the same brain. A vocal ensemble is blessed with a separate brain for every sound source, which is a great boon in many situations, but makes life harder for moments like bellchords.

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