Cleeve Harmony and the Nature of Performance Traditions

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cleeveI had a rich and fascinating evening working with Cleeve Harmony near Cheltenham on Tuesday. This is a new barbershop chorus, only 10 months old, and while its membership profile is very typical in its mix of people with previous experience and people new to singing, it is striking for having only one member - its founder-director, Donna Whitehouse - with any previous barbershop experience.

My remit for the evening was primarily to help them with director-chorus communication - working with Donna on aspects of her technique, and working with the chorus on making sense of what she's doing. One of the rewarding things about such an agenda is the sense that whichever end of the equation you address, you also help the other.

The part of the evening that was most intensive and gave the most to reflect on was when we worked on that approach to phrasing and delivery known in barbershop as 'ballad style'. This was one of the distinctive aspects of the style (both in terms of its aural impact and its associated directing style) that fascinated me when I first encountered barbershop, to the extent that it formed the focus of Chapter 6 of my first book. And understanding how it works - theoretically and in practice - as a directing technique was one of the projects the fad the genesis of my later research in gesture and style that culminated in my second.

Of course, I meet this style regularly in the life I lead these days, but what brought it into focus here was working with a both group of people who were not familiar with it, and a director who understood it as a singer, but did not yet have the technique to show it. I have worked with relatively new directors before, but usually with a chorus already versed in the style; I have worked with singers who need help to understand it before, but usually with a director with experience in its gestural world.

Indeed, most people starting barbershop for the first time join a pre-existing chorus and learn its habits of musical shape from within, surrounded by people who are accustomed to them. When most new directors have to lead this for the first time, the expectations of the people they lead shape their emerging gestures.

Needing to work with both ends (singers and director) almost from scratch demonstrated very vividly how the communication between a director and chorus is a kind of social contract. The director's gestures are intuitively meaningful, but only within the context of shared musical content and its associated performance traditions. Until the majority of an ensemble have experience of those performance traditions, the gestures won't be transparently meaningful; in fact it will be harder even to make those gestures.

In practice, what we did was a concentrated three-way process between me, the singers and Donna. I would both sing and gesture a short phrase, then they would repeat back - Donna directing, and the singers both singing and directing. The goal was to help the singers feel the manner of shaping, and for all to start to build up a gestural concept of how that worked. The singers' own gestures were in part to give them an intuitive understanding of what to understand from watching their director, but also to help them grasp (literally!) the shaping from the inside.

Interspersed in this monkey-see-monkey-do process were moments of analysis. We explored how it is the stretch rather than the ictus that is the focal element of this style of directing. We looked at the patterns of lift and arrival, and at how the directions of traditional beat patterns include expressive information that are useful in these ametrical situations. The key was to get away from pulsing every syllable, and from a prevailing downwards motion for all events.

The goal was to develop both a holistic/intuitive and an analytical understanding of the style, the former to get how the music feels, the latter to trouble-shoot when feeling needs guidance. We got to a place where people could tell they were singing differently, and could intuit the rewards that would become available as they got inside the style. We all felt like we had worked hard by the end of the evening, but we had all also grown as musicians.

At a personal level, I was right in my element. The practical problem-solving we were doing together lay right at the heart of the questions I built my second book around, to whit:

The questions are simultaneously theoretical (in what ways is musical style stored in our bodily experiences, and how does it then relate to our sense of self?) and practical (how does one conduct a choir, especially in stylistic contexts that may feel 'foreign'?). [My research] has examined the praxis of a variety of choral traditions, and has investigated the extent to which the relationship between conductor demeanour and choral sound works at a general level, and in what ways it is constructed within the stylistic constraints of a specific idiom (p. 1).

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