On Shifting Keys

Today’s reflections were sparked by a message from a friend asking the following question:

Question, how do you feel as an arranger, singer, and/or multi-genre musician about the practice of habitually shifting the keys of songs? One of my quartets casually shifts many songs up a tone or more as if it's nothing (including with little notice), and it's putting strain on me both vocally and conceptually. It's alright if the song is simple, but if there are mucho chromatics I have to perform integral calculus as I go, and it breaks my music memory. Can I put my foot down or am I being unreasonable?

It’s a good one, isn’t it? My immediate response was that there needs to be some sort of negotiation here – just because a different key is good for one or two voices, doesn’t make it good for all. And that if they are habitually picking arrangements that comfortably accommodate either low or high voices, but not both at once, they need to have a bit of a think about how they are going about this.

On the Liberalising of the Barbershop Style

One of the things that has happened in the five years since I stopped being a barbershop Music judge is that there has been a deliberate policy to frame both the category description and the way it is used in practice in ways that will encourage more new music. And you’d have to say it has been largely successful. We are hearing a much wider variety of songs in contest than we used to.

In part this has been about loosening rules so they express what is best practice rather than a ‘do-this-or-else’ approach. So, for example, the chord vocabulary is now presented in a hierarchy of ringability, rather than with the distinctions between chords that are allowed, those allowed under certain circumstances, and those not allowed. All chords are allowed, but if you want to score well, keep using lots of major triads and barbershop (dominant-type) 7ths as they are the most barbershoppy.

On Choral Courage

Having recently shared David McEachern’s wise observation that you can’t necessarily choose to be confident, but you can choose to be courageous, I’d like to share a story of choral courage I witnessed about a year ago.

Those of you who know me in real life are aware that last January my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. She seemed happy and healthy when she spoke to my brother on the Sunday, to me on the Monday, and had lunch with her sister on the Tuesday. Then she failed to turn up to choir practice on Thursday. She never missed choir practice without warning.

Exploring Compensating Rubato with LaBOOM

Action screen-shotAction screen-shot

Saturday took my musical attention back to Munich, though my body stayed at home. The amenity of Skype allowed me to spend a couple of hours with LaBOOM quartet working on two new songs I arranged for them back in the autumn. They quite sensibly wanted to get this session done early in the learning process, to shape the overall concept of the songs before they’d got too settled in their habits with them.

The most challenging area we tackled during the session was getting a feel for compensating rubato. Their ballad is in a gentle ¾ time, and they had been feeling as quite strongly waltz-like. Our task was to ease this framework up into something slightly more flexible without spoiling the sense of poetic metre or the lilt that the time signature provided.

Setting the Tone with Jordan Travis

The collected directors, led in song by Jordan TravisThe collected directors, led in song by Jordan Travis

I spent the weekend at the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual Directors Academy, this year led by guest educator Jordan Travis. At the start of the weekend he framed his approach using the metaphor of harmony that is central to barbershop culture: musical harmony as both cause and expression of social harmony.

As the weekend progressed, though, a more specific metaphor seemed to emerge in his twin interests in vocal technique on one hand and chorus culture and values on the other. This crystallised on the Sunday morning while we were analysing the warm-up he had led the delegates through, and he talked about the ways that the warm-up ‘sets the tone’ for the rehearsal to come in both dimensions.

On Vocal Confidence

Since the start of the year is a traditional time for goal-setting, I had conversations earlier in the month with various singers about what they would like to get better at during 2019. And there’s a theme that has come up in several times that I’d like to reflect on for a while, and to consider how best to support people working on it: vocal confidence.

You can see why people identify it as a goal: it is very natural to want to feel more secure in what you’re doing. What is less immediately clear is what produces this feeling. Because as I’ve noted before, confidence is not the same as competence - your objective skill level and how you feel about your performance are connected to an extent, but it’s by no means a direct or linear relationship. And sometimes the relationship is even inverted.

Soapbox: On Possessive Lyrics

soapboxThere’s a moment in The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when Slatribartfast asks Arthur, ‘Is that your robot?’

‘No,’ says Marvin, ‘I’m mine.’

This scene comes to mind every time I hear a barbershop tag that finishes a love song with the information that the beloved is now, ‘Mine, all mine’. However much sympathy I have had for the sentiments expressed up to that point (which is often quite a lot; I’m a soppy old soul despite my misanthropic appearance), it largely evaporates in the face of this blatant possessiveness.

You can’t own the person you love most in the world. Even once they have decided to team up with you so you can build a life together, they are still their own person with their own preferences and opinions and needs and – most importantly – the right to determine their own destiny. Asserting that they are all yours doesn’t make you sound romantic, it makes you sound like Monty Burns gloating over a pile of gold.

Developing the Director at Three Spires Harmony

AprilTSHTuesday night took me over to Three Spires Harmony in Coventry to work primarily with their director, April Stevens. April is in her first post as a director, and having got a few months experience under her belt – getting to know the chorus, getting to know the music – she was ready for some specific input on her conducting technique.

Incidentally, April’s trajectory is an exemplary case study of what sociologist Robert Stebbins has termed a barbershop ‘career’. His point is that one of the things that marks a hobby out as ‘serious leisure’ is the way its structure offers opportunities for individuals to progress and develop over time.

So, like April, you can start out as a singer in a chorus, get promoted onto its music team, and from there be in a position to take on the directorship of another local chorus. In April’s case, this career progression is being explicitly supported by the director of the chorus she sings with, The Belles of Three Spires, and I am certain this mentoring has helped both chorus and director settle in together more readily. I just mention it in case anyone else wants to do likewise in similar circumstances.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.


Archive by date

Syndicate content