Ladies and Gentlemen...
I spent part of the Friday afternoon at last weekend’s convention coaching Ladies and Gentlemen, a mixed project chorus who had come over from Holland to perform on the shows. The singers - over 80 of them - are drawn from across the country, and they had had a total of 10 rehearsals and a couple of warm-up performances in preparation for coming to Harrogate. They are plannning to continue until the Dutch convention next spring, making it a project of about 15 months in total.
I know their director, Wil Saenen, from her time as a judge in the Singing Category, and there were also several familiar faces amongst the singers from groups I’ve met when travelling to Holland Harmony/DABS and European conventions in Eindhoven. There were also a number of singers for whom this is their first barbershop experience - several people I spoke to were proud of the fact that they had made this an open-access chorus, without requiring previous experience to participate.
We worked on two songs together, both 8-part arrangements structured as women’s and men’s choruses layered together, sometimes working antiphonally, sometimes as a full 8-part texture. My arrangement of ‘Summer Nights’ is driven into this structure by the relationship of the characters from the movie, and it was interesting to explore how Buzz Haeger’s arrangement of ‘And so to Sleep Again’ uses similar devices to unfold the song’s architecture at a purely musical, rather than narrative level.
One of the challenges all choruses face in complex textures is balance - making sure the detail is clear, but does not overwhelm the primary focus of melody and story. This challenge increases both with the number of parts and with the number of singers - the bigger the sound, the harder your ears have to work to untangle them. So, with these arrangements, and a group this size, we had plenty to work on.
People often talk about balance in terms of volume relationships - and not surprisingly, since, when the melody isn’t coming through clearly enough, the perception is that the other parts are too loud. But the risk in addressing it at a level of volume relationships is that can reduce the engagement of the embellishing/harmonising parts. I have been opinionated before on the instruction to ‘back off’.
Instead, we worked in terms of managing attention. If every singer knows what the audience is listening out for, and listens out for it too, they will naturally balance to it. I’m sure part of this is about volume - if you sing so loud you can’t hear anything else, it’s not going to balance. But I think it is also about musical awareness. By listening out for other parts, you are taking responsibility for a larger part of the music. You get a more convincing result (better balanced, better tuned, more expressive) when everybody feels like they are singing the whole song, not just their own part.
This in turn helps the audience. The act of listening is one of integrating all the sounds flying towards you into a coherent musical understanding in your head. If the performers just send the parts out and make the audience do all the work in putting it together, it becomes a more cognitively challenging exercise. If the performers are all singing with this sense of the whole, the audience doesn’t have to work so hard at a cognitive level and can suspend disbelief and slip into an emotional response more easily.
(Of course, this is a continuum. You rarely hear ensembles where the singers have little or no awareness of each other’s parts, but you can often increase the impact of a performance - as we did here - by working on this sense of awareness.)
One of the interesting things about working with people who are all using their second language is that it keeps you honest as a coach. There is no point giving a lecture, as that makes things harder rather than easier. You really have to home in on exactly what you want to communicate and convey it in the simplest, most efficient way possible. I enjoyed the discipline of this, and did take it to heart the few times that Wil had to add an explanation in Dutch. It’s a standard instruction to directors not to talk too much, and experiences like this are good reality-checks for the capacity to be clear.