A Champion Evening

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coachingamershamOn Tuesday I had my first coaching session with Amersham A Cappella since they won both the Good Housekeeping Choir of the Year competition and the LABBS chorus championship within two weeks of each other last October. They are still wearing the extraordinarily broad smiles they acquired then, and are pushing forward to build on the performance gains they made during the previous year.

Both of the arrangements we worked on on Tuesday were show pieces that use a lot of the techniques of contemporary a cappella instead of (and/or in addition to) the techniques of core barbershop. So, homophonic close-harmony textures appeared somewhat sparingly, to be replaced by more layered textures, largely driven by nonsense word-sounds (‘vocables’) used for their evocation of instrumental timbres. Hence, much of our work revolved around teasing out the details of these different textures, and balancing out the layers.

Interestingly, the role of the vocable is something I have been toying with blogging about from an arranger’s perspective.* But when you look at it from a performance perspective, you are thinking about exactly the same things. The arranger is thinking about how to spell syllables so that the singers’ mouths will make the shapes needed for the different musical effects, while the singers are working out what the written syllables imply for the sounds they produce. (I think that sentence might say the same thing twice – but then, that’s my point really.)

The obvious effects that arrangers create are the percussive sounds generated by consonants: dmm, vuh, ba, ch, juh. But the area we spent more time exploring on Tuesday was that of the volume relationships generated by the way different syllables open the mouth different amounts.

For instance, in a sparse texture with a single line of melody accompanied by a dm-dm-dm-dm pattern, whilst the riff needed to be resonant (achieved by rehearsing to nm-nm-nm-nm and keeping space between the back teeth), it was never going to be loud because it kept the mouth closed so much of the time. Hence, this was a strong hint to the melody line about the volume level required of them at that point to balance.

Vowels also play a significant role. A sudden and dramatic crescendo was created at one point by switching from nin-nin-nin to daa-daa-daa, whilst the move between ‘ooh’s and ‘oh’s indicated the ebb and flow of a counter-melody. What was interesting was that these implicit dynamic shapes were already happening automatically, created by the inherent shapes of the parts, but when the singers started paying specific attention to them, they emerged in a much clearer form, producing much more sculpted textures.

Another feature we gave some specific attention to was the use of rests. Ensemble singers are used to thinking about coordinating the onset and release of sound, of course. But the release of sound at the end of a narrative phrase is qualitatively different from a silence introduced as part of a rhythmic effect. Ending the notes together wasn’t getting quite the degree of crispness and articulation we needed, so we starting thinking about it instead as starting the rests. It is somehow easier to perform the onset of silence positively than it is to perform the cessation of sound.

* For a nice overview from the arranger’s perspective, see this post on Portamental (The Blog Formerly Known as SmarterMusic)

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