Refining Delivery with Red Rock Harmony

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Enjoying the power of the Power PoseEnjoying the power of the Power PoseSaturday took me to Teignmouth to work with my friends from Red Rock Harmony on the songs they are preparing for next months LABBS/European Convention in Bournemouth in Bournemouth. This included the ballad I had worked on intensively during my last visit in July, plus an up-tempo number. With six weeks to go the focus was on refining performances from both technical and artistic perspectives, and on getting the handover from Manager to Communicator well underway.

One theme we explored was the distinction between local and global shaping, between the nuances of delivery within the phrase, and the sculpting of the various expressive worlds at different stages of a song’s form. The chorus was already producing the former intuitively as they responded to lyric and melody, but they needed more of a large-scale structure for these to work within.

A traditional way to look at this is terms of dynamics – and indeed an audience listening to the results of our day’s work may indeed think of the song in terms of the quieter sections and louder sections. But the difficulty with this is that if you are also thinking about the local shaping in terms of swelling the sound and phrasing it off, it gets hard to differentiate the louder moments in a quieter section and the quieter moments in the louder sections.

It can be much easier to characterise the sections using emotional and/or sensory metaphors to provide a framework within which the phrases ebb and flow. We used Heather Lane’s concept of melodic activity defining level of expression to define an overall form that alternated between conversing I-thou and telling the world. We also used the metaphor of different fabrics to differentiate the tone colours the different sections needed: moving from velvet to satin to muslin to cloth of gold, and back to velvet.

In the up-tempo song we had some similar conversations to the ones I had with GraceNotes last week about how the narrative starts in the eyes, and how the audience will only believe your gestures if you are telling the story with your face. This was a useful general point, but it had particular relevance at moments of Grand Pause.

There is a barbershop performance habit of reaching a climax, and then following it with a silence that is expressively blank: bodies still, eyes, empty. Those silences can only have the impact they are intended to have if they play a meaningful role in the narrative. Something has to be going on inside the world of the song’s protagonist for the pause to participate in the story.

This is akin to the idea of the thought point I have written about before, but deals with specific instances that occur at pivotal moments in the song’s narrative. Fortunately, you can pretty much always answer the question, ‘What is going on in the song here, and why is it significant?’ by looking at what happens next in the lyric. In our case, there was a specific really fun thing that was about to happen, so the GP was needed to look forward to it. Once the chorus started anticipating the unholy glee they knew they would feel singing the fun bit, their faces and bodies came alive, and with it the silence they were performing.

We also explored the delivery of punchlines. There were two lines in the song (one that is always there, another in an interpolated lyric – it is one of those songs that has a tradition of performers customising the lyrics) that were significantly funnier than they were delivering. Indeed, the original lyric is one that has always rather baffled me, but when it is sung with a mildly ironic intent, it makes perfect sense and raises a smile.

What was interesting here was that the main thing we needed to do was recognise the humour. Once we’d noted why it was funny, everyone knew what kind of look they needed to give with it, and added a subtle vocal inflection without being asked to.

I’m not going to tell you what the jokes were because, as we also discussed, surprise is important in a joke’s impact. The chorus were struggling a bit with a repeated passage – how to deliver it so that the joke it contained had more impact the second time (the musical imperative), when the first appearance, with the benefit of surprise, had rather stolen its thunder.

We dealt with this by simply removing the repeat. The song was plenty long enough without it, and the climactic weight at the end of the song that the repeat had been designed to provide was amply offered by a single iteration of the joke, which now landed well and could be performed with undivided commitment.

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