March 2016

Story-telling with Royal Effect

royaleffectGood Friday brought Royal Effect quartet to visit for a coaching session. They are preparing for the Sweet Adelines Region 31 Convention in May, and brought their contest set along in a state where the technical challenges were largely under control leaving us to focus on the artistry of their delivery. The two songs are very different in shape and feel, but we found ourselves working with both of them in terms of narrative.

Their ballad is essentially a declaration of love that elaborates on a single, central idea. This gives it a great sense of purpose, but can make it harder to find the variety and contrasts a performance needs amongst the unity.

It becomes much easier to find shape and narrative if you recast the song as a dialogue rather than a monologue. Having established the scenario - the moment in the journey of a relationship - that the quartet imagined this moment to be taking place in, we brought the imagined beloved into the room.

Cheshire Chord Analysis


The Thursday afternoon before the long Easter weekend is not a sensible time to drive up the M6 from Birmingham to Warrington. Possibly you knew that already, but when we agreed the date for me to go and work with Cheshire Chord Company on their new ballad, it had escaped my notice that Easter was so early. Just as well, I thought as I crept along in nose-to-tail traffic for 80 miles, that I was going to have such fun making music when I got there. Bright-siding is easy when you’re visiting a chorus with such a culture of positivity.

My remit was, as in my previous visits, to help them explore the music at an early stage of development, to deepen their understanding of what the song and arrangement were doing, and why they were doing it like that.

Old Friends and New at Harmony InSpires

HImar16Harmony InSpires is a chorus with a special place in my heart, as they were the first group I coached - and therefore the subjects of my first blog post about coaching - after starting this website in 2008. Back then they had recently taken on their new name, and, though rapidly growing, were still a small chorus. They have continued to grow in both number and confidence, and it was lovely to see both some familiar faces on the risers, and lots of new recruits.

This was my first visit since their current director, Peter Cookson took over a couple of years ago, and he had asked me to come along to wear two specific, but distinct, coaching hats. One was my arranger’s hat, to work with them on a chart they commissioned last year, and are now just at that mostly-know-it-but-still-making-decisions-about-delivery stage. This is the perfect time for coaching on questions of shaping, trajectory, and overall intent, before anything gets too practised in.

A Cappella Spring Fest 2016


Most Sundays in the centre of Didcot are possibly not that exciting, but every March for the last 6 years, there has been an event worth travelling to. And this year’s A Cappella Spring Fest saw people come from as far afield as the Isle of Wight and Selby to participate in a day’s celebration of unaccompanied song in the Cornerstone Arts Centre. This was my second year as a tutor, and, like last year, I was leading the Contemporary A Cappella stream.

The format of the day was similar to last year’s, though the team tweaks marginally from year to year in response to feedback and experience. This time the ‘Fest Flash’ song - a song to be flashmobbed out in the shopping centre where Cornerstone is situated over lunchtime - took a much more central role for all participants. As before a core of singers who had opted to work on it during the morning formed the nucleus of the performance, but this time all other participants had enough work on it scheduled in also to join in.

On Echoes

So, I mentioned in my recent post about phrase-boundary embellishments that I had a pile of thoughts about echoes I was trying not to get distracted by just then. I have saved them for today’s post, and actually find that some of them have come into focus in the light of that last one.

One of my earliest realisations as an arranger was that over-using echoes leads you to feel, when you sing the chart, a bit like a parrot. (I can date this as one of my earliest thoughts on the craft as I can remember where I was when I had it, and I moved out of that flat in 1998.) The thing is, echoes, are awfully tempting to use in rhythmic songs, as by their nature they give you rhythmic propulsion in a style and feel that fits the song.

Also, by definition, echoes are inherently backward looking embellishments, so there is something of a conflict of feel here already, asking a device that’s all about the phrase you’ve just left behind to give you forward motion.

On End-Gaining

The concept of ‘end-gaining’ comes from Alexander Technique, which defines it as a kind of relationship with the world in which you are so focused on getting the result you want (gaining your end, indeed) that you go about it any way which way without adequate attention to how, or as AT puts it, the ‘means whereby’. AT is all about inhibiting habitual or impulsive responses for long enough to assert control over the means whereby you do things.

End-gaining is on the face of it about impatience. It is also about focusing on outcome goals to the exclusion of process goals. The mind-set that leads people to game the system, or - in extremis - to cheat, is one of end-gaining, as it comes with an emphasis on extrinsic rather than intrinsic rewards. In other contexts, end-gaining drives you into that state of unhappy over-practising where you hammer away at the notes of the too-hard passage without stepping back to analyse either the musical structures that holds it together or the technical skills it requires. 10,000 hours of this kind of work produces injury rather than mastery.

Bristol A Cappella Again

BACfeb16After my day with Silver Lining last Saturday, I headed off down to Bristol on the Sunday for another day with Bristol A Cappella. This time we were in a different venue again, but still in the same area, and yet again it was one I had walked past pretty much every day of my undergraduate life without ever stepping inside. I can report that Bristol Grammar School has a nicely-equipped drama studio.

Turn-out on this occasion was a bit lower than anticipated, which meant that the singers who were there had to work rather harder than usual. The challenge in these circumstances is both musical (the safety net that usually rescues you if you make a mistake is sparser, so you have to do more for both yourself and your fellows) and also as a consequence psychological (you feel more exposed and thus less confident). The very sonic envelope around you is smaller, you feel less cuddled by the music.

Silver Lining, Melodic Lines

Saturday took me over to Coventry to visit my friends at Silver Lining and spend the day working with them on their new ballad. They had had it for four weeks, so it was just at that point where they basically knew it, but hadn’t yet practised it so thoroughly that it would be hard to make changes. So, the perfect moment at which to have a coaching session focused on getting inside the song.

As is my wont in these situations, I’m not going to tell you what the song is, as they may want to control the manner in which they reveal it to the world, but I think it is fair game to tell you that it is one of those songs that is all about melodic flow. It has some lovely lyrics, some glorious harmonies, but it is the tune that steals your heart.

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