Artistry in Amersham
Tuesday evening took me down to have a whirlwind session with my friends at Amersham A Cappella. We got through an unbelievable quantity of stuff in a little over two hours, through a combination of some virtuoso prioritising from their director Helen Lappert and me (to blow our own trumpets unashamedly) and the stupendous level of up-for-it-ness the chorus brings to everything they do. It helps that they have very secure technical skills so we were able to work on artistry confident that their voices would be able to deliver what the songs needed.
We spent the first part of the session working on my medley of ‘Hit Me With a Hot Note’ and ‘Too Darn Hot’ that they won a silver medal with at LABBS Convention last year, and then took a whistle-stop tour through their repertoire, encompassing a new barbershop ballad, a Katy Perry song, a spiritual and a madrigal. As you can imagine, this makes it quite a tricky evening to summarise!
But through all this varied repertoire, there was a common experience of how much impact quite small changes can have when they make room for the singers’ intuitive expressiveness to come through. For example, at the transition into the second song of the medley, we took the heat metaphor, and put the song’s delivery into a pressure cooker rather than an open boiling pan. Suddenly all the consonants came alive - they had been well articulated all along, but hidden by the previous vocal colour. The new feel also allowed much more dramatic moments in embellishments (conceived as a release of steam), and brought out the punchline structure of the lyric.
In the Katy Perry song, it was articulating the shift in expressive register from melody and accompaniment as a more narrative, conversational mode, to homophony as a more declarative moment brought out the beauty of both. When the harmony parts took a more sensitive approach to their accompaniment role, the leads were able to bring much more shape and nuance to their story-telling, and this threw the big chordal moments into relief. Likewise in the madrigal, finding a more chamber-music, string rather than brass timbre, let all the details of the texture and text come through.
We also found ourselves working on the relationship between choreographic gesture and voice in several different contexts. It turned out that one of the reasons why a written pause hadn’t been working, for instance, was that the gesture on that note had too much movement in it and was giving the energy away rather than letting it build. Or on the word ‘roar’, the vowel was a little to covered and choral in sound, while the accompanying gesture based on a tiger’s claws wasn’t quite capturing the muscularity of the image it was designed to evoke. In this case, the connection was both metaphorical (brighter sound = more dangerous animal) and physical (how you use your hands directly affects vocal tone).
Possibly my favourite moment - one which included both the small-change-but-big-impact element, and the relationship between body and sound - was on the word ‘champion’. The body language here was very positive, but there was a tendency to lean forward into it, looking more narrative than declarative. We repurposed the metaphor of musical solar panels on the front of the shoulders that I coined when working with directors last year, and lifted them to the sun on that word. This gave us not just a wonderful match between lyric, visual impact and sound, but also an immediately unified expression across the chorus.
It’s that kind of moment that makes a coach feel like a genius, and invites singers to believe in the possibility of quick fixes. But we all know I couldn’t have done that, and neither could they, were it not for the months and years of dedicated groundwork they have put in to both their vocal and their performance skills. Just sayin’.