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Going in Deep with Bristol A Cappella

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BACsep23Saturday saw me back with my friends at Bristol A Cappella, coaching them for the first time since they stormed into a gold medal in the BABS mixed chorus contest in May. It is said that you start singing better the first time someone pins a medal on you, and there was definitely a new sense of assurance on show. They’ve always been an intelligent chorus, willing to engage with things that will help them improve, but the process of making those gains is quicker when the singers aren’t wondering whether they are capable of them.

Our task for the day was to work on four repertoire songs for their up-coming show to celebrate their 10th anniversary next month. It felt like the earliest times I worked with them, back before the barbershop mixed chorus existed, with a wider range of styles and repertoire, including a texturally-adventurous 8-parter. You can buy your tickets here:

Musical texture, and its implications for teamwork, became one of our first themes for the day. Clarifying the changing roles within the texture, who is working with whom at any one point, which parts are foreground and which accompaniment, brought clarity and shape to the musical narrative.

We also thought a good deal about musical shape. The work we had done earlier in the year on melodic flow, and on singing sentences rather than words, was already evident in their approach to delivering a tune. We turned our attention also to how this applies to accompanying figures: riffs, motifs, vocables, long notes. It’s easy to think that just because a musical element is simple, it doesn’t take much thought, but by sculpting these elements with more care, it made it easier to find the clarity in texture and also to build longer-range expressive arcs.

One of the most rewarding things about the day was that, once we had established the principles of finding musical shape and expressiveness in every line and every detail, how the singers increasingly went ahead and found it without further prompting. This sense of artistic autonomy was one of the key areas where their new confidence became apparent. It also meant that we could cover a good deal of music in the time available to us.

A couple of the pieces we worked on had been in the repertoire some years, and the challenge of brushing up old material to your current level is an interestingly different challenge from bringing newer repertoire into shape. Having a significant body of newer singers who have only ever known the chorus at its current level helps, of course, but there is still the need to transcend the shared way of inhabiting the music established in past times.

An important part of this process is patience. Sometimes it is what appears to be the easiest passages that need the most attention. In one case, there was a sustained chord held by three parts to accompany a phrase of melody, and it audibly embodied the chorus at an earlier stage of development precisely because they’d never struggled with the content and so had never had to give it detailed attention. It was accurate and in tune, with good blend within each section, but the adduction between the vocal folds wasn’t as clean as it is as a matter of course these days, neither did the vocal tone between sections match very closely.

It was, on the face of it, a ‘simple fix’ to bring it up to their current level, and as such it might have been surprising that it took several passes at it to make the change. But when you’re very familiar with a piece, you’re so used to it that you don’t necessarily hear that skill gap in the sound until you are made to live with the detail.

It may feel like the time it takes to nail one chord is disproportionate, both to apparent difficulty of the task (or lack there of) and to the amount of time it will account for in the context of the overall performance. But the thing about investing time in this kind of detailed work is that it continues to pay off in everything you do thereafter. In my head I label this kind of activity as ‘deep work’. It’s too intense to spend all your time on, but it’s incredibly satisfying when you’re in the middle of it, and it’s how you effect lasting changes of level in your performance.

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