Taking Big Steps with Capital Connection

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Royce's Very Useful ExerciseRoyce's Very Useful ExerciseA warm and sunny Sunday afternoon took my down to Ruislip to work with my friends at Capital Connection on the new contest package they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention in the autumn. It’s a themed package that pairs a reasonably well-established song in the barbershop contest repertoire with a brand new arrangement by the chorus’s director Debi Cox. I had worked with her earlier in the year on the latter, as part of my arranger consultancy services, so it was rewarding to go and see the chart on the next stage of its journey.

The songs were at the stage where the technical demands and the overall concepts were well under control, so it was time to dig deeper for shape, colour, nuance. Debi had built in some wonderful opportunities for exploiting different vocal colours in the set-up to her arrangement, so we started out exploring the contrasting soundworlds those implied.

Our work in the main body of the song was largely on characterisation, exploring the pacing and shaping of the narrative through the filter of the story the song comes from. That provided both metaphors to colour particular moments, and a wider persona that suggested modes expressive behaviour. I am aware that is all written in very abstract terms. We worked in very concrete, specific terms - but I’m not telling you what they were so as not to spoil the surprise when they reveal their vision on the convention stage.

In the other song, we found ourselves working in a more technical mode, as they had been experiencing some loss of tonal centre in it and wanted to establish more control over it. But even then, we still linked the need for pitch integrity back to the story - the reason it matters after all is because it makes a difference to the emotional impact of the song.

We prepared for this work using a very simple 3-chord exercise I learned in a facebook group, attributed to Royce Ferguson. It gives an executive summary of how to treat the fundamental tonal functions in barbershop chording. So, how big the step is between 1 and 2, how they lock with 5, how a root and a 7th phnert together, how the notes that make up the tritone in a 7th need to tuck in to the chord. It looks like nothing much written down, but you can get so much learning out of it.

Given that the pitch loss was happening gradually over the course of the song, rather than at a specific moment, I looked for features that occur repeatedly as possible places where they were giving away tiny increments of pitch each time they occurred. Both the melody and bass-line of this song feature the second degree of the scale in the main musical idea - and as we had already established in Royce’s ‘hind’ exercise, this is a step that is much bigger than you might expect.

Interestingly, in the light of my post a while back about keyboards in the a cappella rehearsal, this is an instance where a piano would hold the chorus back. They were singing 2nds that would be fine for a piano, but weren’t big enough for this context.

We also played somewhat with lines that returned to their start note a few notes later, leaving out the intervening notes. The chorus are used to the feel of ‘refreshing’ repeated notes, so this applied that same principle to notes that aren’t immediately repeated but do recur. It’s also a great way to build a sense of linear structure, of lines consisting not just of a series of successive intervals, but of digressions from, and embellishments of simpler, underlying shapes.

One of the ways that this kind of work rewards you is that, once you have found the groove, you tend to stay there. So then you can head back into the artistic work of shape, nuance and narrative, trusting the tonal centre. Any later work needed on bright 5ths or phnerting then reintegrates into the expressive rather than technical dimension, there for beauty, not merely correctness.

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