Reflecting on the Craft: an Evening with Chorus Iceni

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I forgot to take a screenshot, so borrowed a nice pic from their websiteI forgot to take a screenshot, so borrowed a nice pic from their website

On Monday evening I had the pleasure of visiting Chorus Iceni as part of the series of masterclasses they are running over this autumn. It is always a delight to be invited to share my craft (you can tell from my blog title I get my kicks from increasing the world’s capacity to harmonise), but it was a particular joy to visit this chorus, as this was the group, under their previous name of Colne Harmony, in which I had started my barbershop journey back in 1996.

There were still three faces from the club back then, including Sally who was membership secretary at the time, and Maxine with whom I sang in my first quartet. I’d normally be looking forward to seeing them at LABBS Convention at the end of October, but as this has – like so much else this year – had to become a virtual event instead, it was lovely to get the chance to say hello in person, if not to hang out and gossip at such leisure.

Anyway, my invitation had been to come and give some insight into the arranging process, and we had a combination of material I had prepared and questions from the chorus. I had anticipated some of the questions in my presentation, but they also made me think on my feet. And afterwards I found myself reflecting on the way one question in particular related to one of my central points.

The question was about whether I ever get asked to arrange a song and then find I can’t. Which is a great question, of course, and made me do a bit of delving into memory for how things have changed over the years. I have written before how every arranger has a bottom drawer of charts they’ve started and then got stuck on, and how that’s a normal part of developing our craft and not something to beat ourselves up about.

But since I’ve been in the position of working mostly to commission, I haven’t experienced this in the same way. In part it’s because the process of agreeing the commission weeds out the impossible (or at least, impossible for me): I have enough experience that when someone asks for a particular song to be arranged as contest-grade barbershop, for example, it doesn’t take me very long to work out whether it’s going to work. And if it smells implausible I’ll either persuade them into taking it on as a show tune or choosing a different contest song, or I’ll turn down the commission.

I have enough experience, that is, to know how not to set myself up to fail.

But it’s not just that. It’s that the obstacles have themselves become integrated into the process. Every song has a particular challenge, a particular problem that needs solving, and until I have identified exactly what that is, the vision for the chart doesn’t quite come into focus. But once I know what the problem is, I get this sense of inner certainty: now I know what the essential task is and it is merely a case of figuring it out.

Sometimes the challenge is holistic and artistic, for example, a great lyric housed in a rather limited harmonic vocabulary that risks getting a bit dull in a cappella clothing. Or sometimes it is specific and technical, for example how to handle voicings around a low melody without leaving the bass sounding muddy. Sometimes it lives between the technical and the artistic, for example how to bring something to life in four parts when you could really do with 5 or 6.

But the decisions you make around solving that central problem resolve many of the other decisions you need to make. Every song has myriad possibilities, and for many decisions, there are multiple good outcomes. Figuring out how to crack the core challenge, though, means that many of those possibilities no longer fit – and often reveals a bunch of other options you might not have previously thought of.

Indeed, whilst I’ve never not completed a commission because the central problem proved unsolvable, I am routinely daunted by these obstacles. But then again, the songs I have been most daunted by often end up producing some of my most imaginative work, because the problems they presented required me to move further away from the routine.

I have, just this year, added to my bottom drawer of incomplete charts for the first time in a good long while, during my 8-part arranging project. Indeed, part of the point of taking the time out to do this project was to give myself permission not to finish things. There are a couple of sketches of things I never really intended to complete, and just one that I got a good way into before running out of steam.

At the time, the obstacle felt like there were too many possibilities and I wasn’t yet sufficiently fluent in 8-part textures to decide between them. Looking back, I can also see that this was exacerbated by not having answers to all the practical questions you normally ask at the start of a commission: who will be singing it, for what kind of occasion? How big is the group? How accomplished? Do they need something that will be quick to learn, or do they want to invest a lot rehearsal time in it for artistic growth? The combination of only partial fluency in the medium and all these unknowns made the whole thing, at that point, feel unmanageable. I may come back to it one day, but probably only if a more specific context for the chart emerges to guide the decisions.

Told you it was a good question. You can tell those because you are still finding new bits of answer to them the next morning while blogging about the experience!

And it occurs to me that this idea of a piece of music having a central problem that needs solving is a useful one for performers as well as arrangers. The same piece may indeed appear to present different problems to different ensembles, depending on their particular profile of strengths and experience. But approaching rehearsal through the lens of the primary dimension in which the piece is going to ask you to raise your game gives a sense of focus and control to the process, it defines your artistic and technical goals really helpfully.

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