Back with Bristol A Cappella

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Only chance to take pics was at the start, so this doesn't include the people bringing the last riser!Only chance to take pics was at the start, so this doesn't include the people bringing the last riser!Sunday took me down to Bristol for the first of three day-long sessions planned for the first half of this year with Bristol A Cappella. Whilst my last visit took to me into a building I had walked past many times as a student and never entered, this one took me into a building that has been built since I left. But it’s right next door to the Wills Memorial Building in which I spent so much of my time in those days, so that combination of familiarity and strangeness I remarked on last time was considerably amplified!

Bristol A Cappella are currently gearing up to their first experience with contest. They have entered a festival in March, which is in part a warm-up run before the UK’s first mixed barbershop chorus contest to be held in May.

As with my last visit, the focus varied between working primarily with the singers and working with the directors. The shift between the two came partly in dialogue with the needs of the music at any one time, but also served as a useful way to manage stamina for all parties. What is tiring on a day like this is not just standing singing for hours at a time (though that will help you sleep well come night time), but how much cognitive work you are being asked to do. When you’ve had an intensive patch, it helps to spend a while in a more supporting role while your brain absorbs that work before re-joining the mental fray.

Having said that, it is also very rewarding to work with both at once, shunting between singers and director to develop their performance. Changes on each side of the equation affect the other, and one of the ways to reduce the chance of reverting to old habits immediately is to help each adapt to and thus embrace the tweaks.

Both Iain and his assistant James were keen to work on the technique of directing barbershop ballad style. The contest in May has put this firmly on their agenda, and, whilst Iain has plenty of barbershop experience as a singer, they have mostly hitherto worked within the conducting patterns of classical music as directors. I sympathise greatly, having likewise come to the balladising tradition looking for a sense of method only to discover an implicitly understood practice that those who could do found hard to explain.

The key thing I shared with Iain and James was this: you can still use pattern, you just need to dissociate beat from duration. So, downbeats still have that assertive feel, 3rd beats still have that outward stretch of generosity, and so on, so they can still move in the same direction as the do in standard patterns, and will thereby go well with the harmonic and poetic metres of the music. They’ll just take different amounts of time from usual to get there. In effect, you are using the standard gestures for rubato, fermatas, merging and subdividing, but much more intensively than when directing music in a regular tempo.

Once you have this structure, you gain several things - in addition to answering the fundamental, ‘Whose hands are these, and what do I do with them???’ question we all face. You get a sense of varied expressive flavour that matches the musical structures, and it is built into your gestures automatically. You are also freed up from having to direct every syllable, as you now have a shared framework in which to work with the singers. It also allows you to work on clarity of gesture, concentrating the musical flow into a fingertip and reducing distractions from the wrist, elbow and other body parts that try to compete for attention.

Oh, and we had the most wonderful demonstration from James of the principle that if you take your non-dominant hand out of the musical flow until you want to do something specific with it, it has a far greater effect than if it just kind of comes along for the ride most of the time. The transformation of sound was a matter of wonder for us all.

I also wanted to share with you a fun new image that emerged in the flow of the session. We were working on making the ‘ooh’ vowel more resonant, and had been exploring how the formation of the vowel tends to keep more sound inside your head than an ‘ah’ (and thus how arrangers use vowels sounds to create dynamic shape). But we still need to share that sound with the outside world, so I invited the singers to think of themselves as being made of hollow ceramic, and to feel the oo vowel resonating around inside them. For the rest of the day, we could re-establish the resonant ooh simply by putting on our ceramic heads. A weird image, perhaps, but effective.

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