March 2011

Re-opening for Arrangement Commissions

This is an up-dated version of the post I wrote last time I was inviting new arrangement requests. The main changes are the dates and some additional info about logistics

Having cleared my backlog of bespoke arrangements, I am now inviting requests for new ones. I’ll be looking for about 12 to do between May and October – so, if I get up to 12 requests, I’ll do all of them, but if I get more I’ll have to pick which ones to do. This post is, firstly, to talk about the logistics of the process, and secondly to explain how I’ll make the choices if that becomes necessary.

So, first the key dates:

Please get your requests to me by Thursday 21 April 2011 and I will let you know by the end of the month if you’ve been scheduled, and for when. At that point I will ask for a deposit to secure the arrangement slot, and if you don't get back to me within 2 weeks I'll offer it to someone else.

If you’ve already been in touch trying to get ahead of the game, you’ll need to send me your request again as I have no way of knowing if you’re still interested unless you tell me you are!

When you make a request, please include the following information:

Muchness and Mediocrity

Have you ever had the experience of someone looking serious and thoughtful, clearly gathering their thoughts, and then coming out with something that feels like a deep and important truth that they have just figured out? And then when you reflect on it, you realise that the idea, while freighted with genuine value (it’s something one could quite reasonably care about), is not original at all but in fact a bit of a cliché?

(I’m including myself here in the category of people who have these thoughts, by the way. I can think of several ideas which really felt like dawning moments when I had them, but a later acquaintance with a wider literature showed that I was just coming out with a standard tenet of an established artistic or political credo.)

This is all rather abstract, so I’ll give an example.

A Cappella in the Algarve

CleftomaniaCleftomaniaI spent last weekend in the Algarve, working with what are, as far as I know, Portugal’s only barbershop quartet and chorus. When Sylvy Wilks moved out to Portugal four years ago she wasn’t intending to introduce a whole new musical genre there, but she quite quickly found herself part of the local network of singing and performance groups. And when she was asked if she might help re-form a choir that had folded, she chose to make it a barbershop chorus as that was where her primary experience lay, having learned to sing herself with what was then Chiltern Harmony in Amersham. So by a combination of pure luck and the gumption to make things happen, Bella A Cappella was formed.

The main purpose of my visit was to help the quartet, Cleftomania, prepare for their first contest at the Spanish Association of Barbershop Singers convention next month. As well as competing, they will also be taking along a delegation from the chorus, partly as moral support, but mostly to show them why people get so excited about the convention experience. This is only the 2nd SABS convention, but it’s clear that last year’s inaugural event has already done a lot to strengthen the network of barbershop groups in the Iberian peninsula.

On Talent and Hysteresis

Neil Watkins recently introduced the combined BABS and LABBS Music Categories to the idea of hysteresis. The term originates in engineering (Neil explained it using the example of magnetism), but gets used metaphorically in other contexts to refer to a lagging effect. Something will tend to stay in a constant state unless it’s given an extra push to change it.

Neil evoked the term to describe the way that barbershop judges will tend to score the second song of a contest set at a similar level to the first. The initial level-setting at the start of the first song holds sway over the entire performance unless something striking happens to trigger a re-levelling. And this makes sense inasmuch as most people tend to perform all their repertoire to about the same skill level. Reflecting on my own experience of assessing performances, it’s probably about 15-20% of the time that you find a contrasting piece of music brings out a significantly different profile of skills such as to make you re-evaluate your sense of their level. Either the performance suddenly comes alive or suddenly falls down a hole.


As an addendum to my post on word sounds from a couple of months back, I had a lovely little light-bulb moment from John Grant when working with him with Heartbeat Chorus last week. It was about the vowel ‘Oo’.

Now, I have observed over the years that Oos can sound a bit muted compared to other vowels. This is sometimes an advantage of course: as an arranger you can manipulate both relative loudness of different parts and overall dynamic shape of an arrangement by your choice of neutral vowels. But it can also be a problem, reducing the sense of projection.

Hearts Beating Strongly

hb13mar11I had a return visit to Heartbeat Chorus in Cheshire on Sunday, to work in tandem with one of their other coaches, John Grant. John is an immensely efficient coach, effecting significant changes in performance with a few words and a brief demonstration, and it is both a pleasure and an education to watch him in action. I think the two things that lie at the heart of this efficiency are (a) his listening skills and (b) his ability to prioritise. In fact the two are linked: it is his acuity of perception that allows him to home in on precisely the issue that most needs attention.

The chorus is in good spirits, with their win at the Majestic Choir Festival in Torquay last month having given a useful confidence boost. But they are also developing rapidly, which brings its own inherent energy.

Multidimensional Rehearsal Planning

Choral rehearsals nearly always have two sets of simultaneous agendas:

  1. Repertoire preparation
  2. Skills development

The two are clearly related. The skills agenda will often be driven by the needs of the repertoire (what do we need to be able to do in order to sing this music effectively?); conversely the repertoire choice may be driven by skills goals (what music will help us learn this particular technique?).

At the same time, they can fight each other. In particular, repertoire preparation is typically a time-bound activity. We need to know the whole work by the date of the concert; or, we need to know all our seasonal songs before the run-up to Christmas. And, like any activity with deadlines, they have a habit of diverting our attention away from things that could be done at any time (and as a result we never actually get round to them).

The Moderato Trap

Raymond Warren, who was Professor of Music at Bristol when I studied there used to talk of the way that Brahms so easily falls into what he called the ‘moderato trap’. Fast movements aren’t so very fast, slow movements aren’t so very slow, and there’s not much room between for the tempi of what should be of a genuinely moderate speed. I’ve been noticing a similar effect in a number of the groups I’ve been working with lately.

Arranging Rangy Melodies

For all that people of my parents’ generation can be quite rude about the popular music of anyone even slightly younger than them (or is it just my Dad?; the way he tells it, the rot set in with the Rolling Stones), much of the music of the last 40 years uses a significantly wider melodic range than the tunes of the 30s, 40s and 50s to which they are unkindly compared. You often don’t notice just how rangy they are because the singers handle them so well. I hadn’t realised, for instance, how wide a range George Michael covers in ‘Kissing a Fool’ until I heard Michael Bublé (not precisely an inflexible singer himself) cop out of the high notes in his cover of the song.

These songs presents something of a challenge to the close-harmony arranger. With a range that may exceed in the melodic line alone the usual range expected of an entire close-harmony ensemble, what do you do? There are three main options:

Singing and the City

LCSI had the pleasure at the weekend of working with the London City Singers at their annual retreat. They are an unusual chorus in that the area from which they draw their members is based around where they work rather than where they live, so they all stay in London after work for rehearsals before commuting back out to all points of the compass. They are also a young chorus, in both senses of the word – having been formed only 4 years ago, and with members primarily between the ages of 21 and 35.

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