Amersham A Cappella and Expressive Shape

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amershamWhen people commission an arrangement, sometimes they don’t want me to hear it until they’ve got it performance-ready. Other times, people like to me to come and work with them on it, presumably on the grounds that that way they get a coach who will is guaranteed to have already spent some time thinking about how the music should go. (And actually, that’s a good way of holding me accountable - I write nothing for others to sing that I wouldn’t be prepared to help them with if they needed it.)

Amersham A Cappella took the latter approach with the contest up-tune they have commissioned for this year’s Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention.* And they got me in right at the start of the process, at the point where everyone basically knew the song, but they hadn’t practised anything into an unbreakable habit yet. So, we could get right in there and build both the overall concept/characterisation, and get some of the expressive details that will bring it alive identified from the get-go.

A common critique of barbershop performances (though by no means limited to this genre) is that any idiot can do a crescendo, but not nearly so many performers can achieve a diminuendo. The work we did on this song, however, reminded me that this truism assumes that all music is equally balanced in both dimensions, that what goes up must come down. Some music - particularly pieces featuring arching melodies - may behave like, this, but not all by any means.

What we found in the music we worked on on Tuesday was that, where the arc of swell-and-pull-back occurred, it was mostly as a local feature, shaping an embellishment or linking phrases together. On the broader structural scale, the most characteristic expressive shape was a process of build-and-release.

Even at this early stage or preparation, you could sense that all the singers knew intuitively where the build-processes were, so the key to making them work was achieve the release. There were two significant factors we identified here:

  1. The opposite of ‘loud’ is not necessarily ‘quiet’. It can be ‘relaxed’ or ‘narrative’ or ‘conspiratorial’ or (I like this one) ‘dirty’. All of these offer the required contrast to the loudness ramped up through a build, but they are all both much more distinctive, and much more matched to specific musical context than a concept of dynamics based on the metaphor of a volume control.
  2. The way to make a release point most effective is not too reach your peak too soon. You need to continue the sense of growth right up to and into the moment of arrival. If you get loud during the first part of a build, and then steady-state until the release point, you’ve let your audience off the hook. You need to pull them with you right through the whole process and then fling them over the edge of the phrase boundary into the next section of the song.

I have worked with this chorus periodically over a number of years, and it is fascinating and indeed cheering to see how they have developed. In particular, I was impressed by how the commitment to strongly-characterised performance was sustained across the chorus throughout the evening. It is all too easy, especially in detailed and repetitive work, to sing in a mode of ‘marking out’ as opposed to ‘doing it for real’. And of course, doing it for real takes energy, and maintaining energy takes stamina. But Amersham A Cappella demonstrated effectively that mental and emotional stamina are qualities that can be developed as much as physical stamina.

*I’m not going to tell you yet what it is, though, in case they want to spring it on an unsuspecting world as a surprise.

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