On Metaphors and Messing with People’s Heads

[On executing a vocable using the syllable ‘ha’ without making the tone breathy]

Don’t let the h invade the vowel. You want to keep the salt on the edge of the margharita glass, not put it into the drink.

The coaching process produces all kinds of metaphors for different aspects of musical performance, many of them emerging spontaneously from the needs of the moment. One of the things, I am told, that Amersham A Cappella appreciate about my coaching is the vividness and idiosyncrasy of some of the metaphors that pop out during the process. One of the things I appreciate about working with them is knowing that they’ll go with whatever wild imagery comes to hand: not needing to filter insights for sensibleness on the way gives an incredible sense of creative freedom.

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.

The Cultural Politics of Authenticity

Social media is often a colossal waste of time, but you get an interesting and nuanced discussion on a subject that is both practical and principled just often enough to make it worth keeping looking at it. I’d like to reflect on one such discussion I saw amongst a group of choral directors recently, as the various contributions teased out a range of perspectives on a thorny question.

The question was whether a British choir should assume Puerto Rican accents to sing songs from West Side Story. A director had asked their choir to do so, but some of the choir’s younger members were ‘appalled’ at what they considered a racist request.

Some of the participants in the discussion supported the conductor on the grounds of musical authenticity. It would sound silly in choral British accents, they contended, and recommended reference to the original film as a guide. (Though I’d think reference to the recent remake would be a better guide from this point of view, since it uses actual Latinx actors for those roles, not white actors in brown-face as many are in the 1961 version.)

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: A Cappella Arranging and Narrative Shape

soapbox My brain persists in thinking that many years ago I wrote about today’s primary point, but repeated searching fails to find any evidence of it. So maybe I only thought about blogging about it. It is certainly an opinion I have held since before I started this blog – there are arrangements I did back in 2006-7 where I can remember thinking about it. And my recent listening experience has me wanting my fellow arrangers to think about it too.

So the point is this: a cappella arrangements usually need to be shorter than versions of a song that include instrumental (and/or electronica) accompaniment. This is partly because when working with a limited timbral palette you haven’t got the resources to build such a large structure (in much the same way that orchestral pieces are often longer than chamber or solo pieces). With less opportunity to generate variety, longer structures can feel as if they are sagging under their own weight. This is particularly evident if you are also constrained texturally (as in contest-grade barbershop) but is true even if you have a free hand with your textural options.

Getting Connected with Main Street Sound

MainStSoundJun22

I spent Saturday up in York coaching Main Street Sound. We set the date almost 6 months ago, in the early stages of the UK's first Omicron wave, and looking back at the email thread, it was full of finger-crossing and hope. The capacity to make plans and feel confident you’ll be able to carry them out is something I never fully appreciated prior to Covid!

On Assessment Systems for the Arts

Whilst I’m no longer directly involved in assessing music in either competitive or educational settings, I still regularly interact with a variety of institutions that use them, and so still find myself thinking about how they work. The users of these systems – competitors, examination candidates, and the teachers and coaches who support them – often have a slightly conflicted relationship with them. On the one hand, they value the external validation that the systems offer, while on the other, they don’t quite trust them to recognise the value of the artists they judge.

I recently saw a disgruntled teacher complain about the feedback a student had been given on the grounds that art is ‘subjective’ – and thus by implication that what the examiner had criticised could have been a legitimate choice rather than a flaw. This is one of those comments that is both totally right and maddeningly wrong; it captures an important truth but also misses a whole lot of simultaneously true things. And as it’s quite a common discourse for grumbling about assessment in the arts, I felt it was worth unpacking a bit.

Reflections on Gender in Songs and Performers

Back in the early days of this blog I wrote about how some songs are gendered, either implicitly or implicitly. Sometimes it’s just a surface effect of pronouns, and you can readily adapt the song to an ensemble of the other gender either my changing a few words or by abandoning the assumption of heteronormativity. Other times, the persona’s gender is built more deeply into the song’s lyric and/or musical material and is less susceptible to switching.

At the European Barbershop Convention I found myself articulating a couple of thumbprints of implicit gender more consciously than I had before. One was the way some songs lie on the patriarchy-compensated slope: they build giving away power as a token of commitment, the lyric goes down on one knee, so to speak. When sung by a male persona, this mitigates a cultural context of inequality; when sung by a female persona, it exacerbates it. ‘All I possess I surrender,’ is an expression of superlative sacrifice from a man, but for a woman it merely indicates a willingness to return to the oppressive norms of yesteryear when that’s what happened by law when you got married.

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