Avoiding the Dangers of Us-and-Themness in Choirs

singing group cartoonMy last post was about why it is a problem when a choir starts developing factions. Criticism of one sub-group by another is an early-warning indicator that this might be happening - not least because that articulates the fact that the people doing the criticising are thinking of the others as ‘them’. So, our next question is: what can a director to inhibit such tendencies and to counter them should they appear?

The Dangers of Us-and-Themness in Choirs

usandthemMy recent post on the relationship between choral identities and musical behaviours included a passing comment that has stayed with me as deserving more thought. It was the point about people in one section being blamed by those in other sections for musical difficulties experiences by the whole ensemble. This bothered me; it feels like an unhealthy dynamic, with some members of a choir feeding their esteem needs from others’ vocal difficulties. And it’s a dynamic I have encountered often enough that it warrants some reflection on what’s going on, and why it makes me so worried.

So, in the case I cited, it was the basses who were subject to persistent bashing. It could be any part, though - I know of groups in which sopranos or barbershop leads have been subject to the same kind of treatment. Voice parts give an obvious opportunity to create a sense of us-and-them, but other fault-lines open up according to the circumstances of individual groups.

Those Pesky Melodic Non-chord Tones

Of course you can't go more than half a bar in arranging a cappella music before you find a note in the melody that doesn't belong to the prevailing harmony, so in some ways this post is about a central and obvious thing arrangers are always looking at anyway. But a couple of projects earlier this year (songs from Sondheim and the Beatles) have got me thinking about this specifically in terms of how questions of timbre affect our choices.

Non-chord tones in a vocal melody floating across a backwash of instrumental accompaniment have a whole different sonic effect from those same notes sung in a texture where the accompanying harmonies are of the same type of sound as the melody. Sung accompaniments pull the vocal non-chord tones into the chord where instrumental backing lets them stand apart. In a cappella textures, you are much more likely to find a melodic note infecting the harmony, changing its colour.

So, what strategies do we have to deal with this?

Adventures in Edinburgh 3: Venn Diagrams of Style

venn1The last event we went to before leaving Edinburgh was David Patrick’s Jazz Rite of Spring. It has got me thinking about cross-over aesthetics - why they work, why they don’t - but before I get into that, I’d just like to enthuse for a paragraph or two about the performance itself.

It was performed by an 8-piece jazz ensemble, and much of it was a very faithful transcription of the original score for these reduced forces. But every so often they’d hang out on a riff longer than Stravinsky had specified, and put in a solo. The transitions between the two modes were remarkably convincing. There was one where I felt the holding pattern of the riff and easing back onto the score interrupted a build-and-release passage such that the moment of arrival wasn’t as effective as it might have been, but then again you have to accept that not every person thinks of musical shape in the same way.

The nature of the ensemble mitigated towards a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat performance, even without the improvised passages. If you think about the usual scoring of the Rite, and then imagine the whole lot played by just 8 people...they all had a lot more work to do than your average orchestral player. Nobody got any down-time to speak of; all were on duty throughout.

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