West Country Double

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Remembered to take a pic on the second leg of the trip...Remembered to take a pic on the second leg of the trip...

I’ve been down West a fair bit this month already, and on reading the blog posts after those trips, Samphire quartet got in touch to ask if perchance I was down that way again at all in the run up to the LABBS/European barbershop convention. As it happens, I had one more trip planned, this time to Riviera Sound, and so we extended the trip to get extra use from the train fare, and I took a diversion to Bodmin for the Friday afternoon before heading back to Torquay.

With less than a month to go before contest, the agenda for Samphire was all about moving on from technique and into artistry. By this stage in the preparation cycle, the last thing you need is for singers to be concentrating on managing their voices, or making changes to notes or words. Fortunately, Samphire had clearly been putting in the graft to get the technical dimensions of their performance under control, so it was safe to tell them to trust that work and focus on the meaning of the songs.

We approached this through the medium of characterisation and narrative. They had a general concept of the scenarios depicted by each of their songs, but we fleshed out the concrete detail. In what decade was it set? In what country? In what kind of social space? What were the protagonists wearing? Bringing out this specific detail immediately clarified both musical style and bodily language, as it triggered all kinds of shared wider cultural knowledge.

We then talked about the back-story: what had brought the characters to this situation? What did they want out of the interaction depicted in the song? Did they get achieve their purpose?

This helped us map out the various stages of the songs’ narratives in terms of turning points in the story – what reaction the song provoked from their imagined interlocutor, and thus how the song’s persona felt about it. It is much easier to sustain a continuous characterisation with this approach than with labelling the song with more abstract emotional labels, or – even more abstractly – a dynamic plan. You don’t have to remember a to-do list, you just need to understand what is going on and respond in real time as the music signals each event.

The big pay-off with this approach is that, paradoxically, it produces both greater unity within the quartet and greater individual expression. The shared sense of purpose allows each singer to respond to using their own hearts and imaginations to the same narrative trajectory.

Saturday’s session with Riviera Sound also had artistry on the agenda, but we also had space to engage with matters of technique as we were working with music at an earlier stage in the preparation process. We thought a good deal about musical flow, about stringing notes and syllables into longer-range arcs.

Bubbling, as ever, came in useful here. It offers both a means for the singers to focus on line by removing the interruptions of word sounds and a diagnostic tool for the director to hear bumps in singers’ delivery and/or their own directing technique.

(We also spent some time discussing bubbling technique for the benefit of those who find it tricky. In addition to the usual guidelines for embouchure of ‘duckface’ and ‘selfie face’, we added, ‘imagine your mouth has just had a mammogram’. I have no idea whether I picked that up from someone else this month or whether it is a response to some entertaining cartoonage in my social media feeds of late.)

We also thought about the pulse points within the phrase. In defiance of the stereotypes of metre, the downbeat is quite often not the most important beat of the bar. The backbeat of swing is an obvious example of this, but it also works in other contexts. For instance, both the verses of ‘Gaudete’ and the chorus of ‘Money, Money, Money’ make much more sense if you start them with a lift, with the main pulse point part way through the line.

We used physical movement as a means to explore these shapes. It is much easier to feel music’s implied shapings when you are participating in those shapes with your body. Lightening up a habitually emphasised downbeat works intuitively when you lift your body along with your voice. And then when you have found the new shapes, you find all kinds of extra interest in the lyric that had been hiding there in plain view.

We also explored the role of melisma in Kirby Shaw’s rather beautiful SSA arrangement of ‘O Holy Night’. This was a classic example of how people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as music readers can use the notation as a useful source of information about how to sing. Any time you see a slur,that is offering an opportunity to shape dots into lines.

Obviously, shaping matters when you are singing words too, but where the music lets go of verbal meaning and takes flight into pure melody, you are in a world of a particular expressive effect. (I have been known to refer this kind of shaping as ‘swooshithroughiness’. But melisma is a particular case of swooshithroughiness, so the specific term is useful in its own right.) Gesture helps in this shaping process too, especially sweeping the arms downwards to counter-balance a soaring line, in the same way a tree’s canopy is counterbalanced by its roots.

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