Digging Deeper with the Red Rosettes

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Red Rosettes Sept 2013Sunday saw my final, and longest, visit to the Red Rosettes before they fly off to Ireland to participate in this year’s IABS Convention. Having seen them in May, and then a month ago, it was cheering to be able to tell them that I could hear their progress from each visit to the next. This is what you’d hope would happen, of course, but it’s not always perceptible to the people plugging away week in week out.

At this stage of proceedings, it is of course far too late to mess with the general game plan. Whilst I usually describe my role as to go around messing with people’s heads, it’s also one of my life’s goals to increase people’s confidence, and making late changes to performances is a good way to have the opposite effect. So, apart from focusing in on a few isolated technical details that would benefit from specific attention, the day’s activities focused on taking a well-shaped and well-prepared performance, and making it more vivid.

As it happens, I spent quite some time last week writing blog posts about raising the stakes in rehearsal (coming soon), and much of the day revolved around the related theme of asking the chorus to raise their game. One of the risks of good preparation is complacency - that’s a harsher word than I would use to describe the Rosettes’ level of comfort with what they were doing, but there was certainly scope for them to reach out and extend their expressive range.

Interestingly, the dimensions in which we stretched corresponded quite neatly with the classic trio musical assessment: technique, musicianship and performance (as we used when I was at the Conservatoire) or singing, music and presentation (for those who work in barbershop world).

Extended periods toggling between a bubble and a vvv sound, for example, made the singers dig deeper into their physical support and breath supply. Using the breath points as moments to mentally connect the song’s narrative together (aka ’thought points’) required a much more continuous musical commitment. And consistent attention to the communicative impact of the songs moved the chorus beyond a focus on what they were doing themselves to a focus on generating the intended response in their listeners.

In one of those possibly-stating-the-obvious moments, it came home to me how the point of a key change within an arrangement is to raise the stakes within the song’s narrative. Where the material that follows the key change is new, this is readily apparent. Where - as is quite often the case in classic barbershop tunes - it is repeated from earlier though usually with some extra embellishment, it can be treated as that catch-all expressive device ‘emphasis’. This is when it can come over as rather frantic. When you read the key change as a narrative twist, a game-changing moment, rather than mere emphatic repetition, it becomes a lot easier to make sense of.

At the end of the day, we had the wonderful amenity of some friends and family to perform to. The reason this was so valuable was because it turned a run-through into a performance, and thus introduced that wonderful variable of adrenaline.

Actually, after 5 hours of singing, a bit of extra adrenaline was more than useful to help tired singers rise to the occasion. But it also brought home a discussion we’d had earlier in the day about digging deep in rehearsal.

There are things we can do at will during rehearsal, but don’t always bother to. Mood-setting before we sing, commitment to the meaning of the lyrics, full physical engagement in the voice. And it’s easy to think, ‘Oh I’ll do that in performance, I’ll step up to the mark when it matters’. And we might. Or the distraction of people to sing to and a dose of adrenaline in the bloodstream might make help us momentarily forget that intention. The only way we can guarantee full commitment in performance, is to practise full commitment every time we sing. Then that will become the default way of being when circumstances temporarily confound our concentration.

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