February 2011

The Barbershop Style and Opinions

One of the things a barbershop judge in the Music Category does is to adjudicate the extent to which the music competitors sing in contest actually is barbershop music. This is something I’ve been doing for years without holding particularly strong opinions about it. It’s part of the job, so I do it. But as a scholar I have analysed the way the definition of the style has developed over the last 70 years of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s evolution, which has left me with a strong sense of relativism about it all.

But by the nature of things, I meet quite a lot of people who do hold strong opinions, and they often like to harangue me about it. (And I often feel a bit sorry for them, as I tend neither to agree vehemently nor argue back, which must be most unrewarding.) They tend either to think that the style definition is far far too restrictive and that if the genre is to survive it must be liberalised at once, or that the style has been liberalised so far that it the whole genre is at risk of being lost.

Voice Parts and Identity

There is an interesting and subtle distinction between two statements that, at a functional level mean pretty much the same thing:

I sing soprano
I am a soprano

Both statements will have the same effect when putting together a choir, but they make quite different assumptions about the nature of voice parts: activity versus identity.

Starting in the Middle 2: A How-To Guide

Last week I was encouraging the world to develop the capacity to start singing at any point in the music, not just the obvious section boundaries, and promised some practical hints on how to work on this. So, here they are.

The first port of call is the music itself. Part of the director’s preparation for introducing new repertoire needs to be to identify potential start points, and to categorise them as more or less obvious or challenging. The three musical dimensions that most affect this classification are harmony, rhythm and phrase structure. (Arguably the third is a product of the other two, but it is a useful analytical dimension in its own right.)

The obvious section boundaries will usually see these three working together. It’s easy to come in at the start of the verse because all musical elements are signalling the sense of ‘beginning-ness’. It’s harder to pick up from the second phrase because, whilst the phrase structure might signal it as a new beginning, it will likely have moved away from home harmonically. It’s harder still to pick up mid-phrase because both are in flux, though easier if the parts are rhythmically unified than if they are staggered.

So, the four qualities that the singers will want to hang their hats on as they develop this skill are:

Metaphors and Professionalism

There were some interesting discussions over on ChoralNet at the end of January about the use of metaphors in rehearsal, and the response they got from various types of musician. There seemed to be a consensus that metaphors are useful when working with community choirs peopled by amateur singers, but that they might be found objectionable to other performers.

Allen Simon said:

Of course, this is what instrumentalists hate about choir directors: that we use these metaphors instead of simple musical terms like loud and soft.

and was challenged by John Howell, who said:

I've never known instrumentalists to object to the use of metaphors… What instrumentalists WILL object to, with good and sufficient reason, is conducting that looks like interpretive dance and ignores the downbeats that are absolutely essential to counting rests!

Anna Dembska inflected the discussion with the comment:

In my experience, untrained singers (or those I've trained myself) have no trouble with expressive rather than dynamic directions, and it's very effective. The more professional the singers, the more they want dynamics and don't find metaphors useful.

Starting in the Middle

When I was working up to my Grade 1 piano exam aged 8 or so, my piano teacher introduced me to a game of ‘lucky dip’. This involved identifying all the passages in my pieces I was stumbling over, writing each on a piece of paper, and putting the paper in pot next to the piano. During each practice session, I would then take one piece of paper out at random and work on that passage until I could do it three times in a row correctly, at which point I would throw the paper away and pick another.

At the time I kind of recognised that she was getting me to engage with difficult bits by turning it into a game. But what I didn’t realise until years later was that she was also training me to be able to pick up the musical thread anywhere in the piece without having to go back to the beginning. This is a skill that I think would benefit quite a lot of the ensembles I have been working with in recent months.

Expanding In Spires

Toes to the front on the new risers!Toes to the front on the new risers!Wednesday evening took me back to Oxfordshire to have an evening’s coaching with a much expanded Harmony InSpires. Since I first visited them in 2008, they have increased in size by a good 50%, and have had to move to a new rehearsal venue to make room for everyone. Expanding membership is one of those things that people often think they need to do in order to become more successful, whereas in fact it is a result of things going well. People are attracted to participate where they can sense a buzz.

More NoteOriety

NoteOrious and FloddyI spent Saturday afternoon working with NoteOrious on two new songs they are introducing to their repertoire. For past LABBS quartet champions, it can be something of a challenge to find new goals to keep the group developing once they’ve fulfilled their contest ‘career’, and one of the ways (of several) that NoteOrious are dealing with this is clearly to give themselves more demanding repertoire to learn.

So, we spent most of the time on an arrangement of ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ by David Harrington. It is the one most famously sung by Max Q, though David has revoiced it somewhat for NoteOrious to sit better on their ranges.

On Musical Literacy

Neumes: How did that go again?Neumes: How did that go again?The question of do you have to be able to read music to sing in a choir can be a point of some contention. The battle lines are (possibly rather notionally) drawn between ‘classical’ choirs as representing the pro-literacy lobby and ‘community’ choirs representing the non-readers. These lines probably relate more to repertoire expectations and working methods than the skill levels of the actual participants, though. Plenty of classical choirs include non-readers picking things up by ear, while plenty of community choirs include readers mentally writing down their parts as they hear them sung.

So in real life, readers and non-readers often sing side by side. The divisions arise more as matters of ideology. Community choirs may argue that to insist on musical literacy excludes people who have not had the opportunity to learn, and that would both deprive the singers of rewarding experiences and deprive the choir of the singers’ vocal and moral support.

When Should a Pick-up be Harmonised?

'Sweet Adeline', arr. Jay Giallombardo: Jay's arrangements repay careful study for guidance on this and many other parts of our craft'Sweet Adeline', arr. Jay Giallombardo: Jay's arrangements repay careful study for guidance on this and many other parts of our craft

‘Pick-up’ is one of those informal but evocative terms people use to refer to a number of ways of easing into a phrase: one part coming in before the others, or an anticipatory propellant in the bass, or a melodic anacrusis. It’s the last of these I’m particularly thinking about here – as in the example above – and particularly in the context of ballads, where their role is much more about melodic and lyrical shape than rhythm.

So, the options with a melodic anacruses are:

  1. Give it to the lead alone, with the harmony parts coming in on the downbeat
  2. Harmonise it fully so that all parts sing it together
  3. Give it to a duet (or, more rarely, trio) as a kind of halfway house
  4. Have all parts singing, but in a reduced harmonic texture (unison or duet)

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