On Sunday, a collection of arrangers from BABS, LABBS and Sweet Adelines Region 31 gathered in Birmingham for a day of honing their craft. This one of the events under the mantle of Barbershop In Harmony, and is exactly the kind of thing it’s worth collaborating over – arranging is something of a minority interest in each organisation, but between us we have a viable community of people to exchange ideas.
For this occasion, we had kind permission from Joe Liles to use a song he wrote for the Woodshedder’s Folio as a set piece for everyone to work on in advance. We had eight versions submitted in advance for workshopping, and working through these took up the bulk of the day’s activities.
We were also most fortunate to have the services of NoteOrious, LABBS 2008 quartet champions, to sing the submitted arrangements. It was invaluable for the participants not only to hear their work sung live, but also to experiment with the arrangements: what happens if we change a note here or there? It was also great to get direct feedback on the singers’ experience – both verbal and non-verbal. It is one thing to be told that a certain passage is rewarding to sing or rather awkward, but quite another to witness someone looking either happy or perturbed as they actually sing it. It’s easy to rationalise your decisions as an arranger, so seeing the direct impact your choices have on a quartet’s emotional state can be more persuasive than technical arguments.
The over-riding conclusion we all drew from the workshop was surprise at just how many different possible arrangement choices a single song can present. I’d picked the piece as one that was securely in the centre of the style, but also had scope for artistic development as well as exercise of technique. And we had not only a wonderful range of choices for embellishment strategy, but a surprising level of variety in the choices of primary harmony. The style’s content may be somewhat formulaic, and its core arranging techniques may be rather procedural, but they are still effective media for individual creative endeavour.
Other, more specific topics we covered included:
- The balance between giving sense and interest to harmony parts (a good thing) and distracting attention away from the melody (not a good thing).
- The balance between unity and variety in the harmonisation of repeated material. The advantage of harmonising a repeated melody in the same way is clarity - the singers don’t get the different versions muddled up, and the musical structure is very apparent to the listener. The advantage to changing the harmonisation is the opportunity for growth and development, a sense that the song is travelling somewhere. Conversely, the respective risks are dullness versus confusingness.
- Related to this, how the use of circle-of-fifths progressions can shape (or distort) the sense of form. (This is probably a rich enough subject for a post in its own right!)
- How an interval is easy or difficult to sing as a result of its context as much as its content.
- The effect that different choices of key have not only on the voicings and the lie of each part, but also on the expressive effect of the song as a whole.
Special thanks must go to Viv Garner who looked after the day’s logistics, managing not only the publicity and registration in advance, but also looking after us ever so well during the day. Viv is one of those people who, quite unostentatiously, keeps the world turning, and her efforts enrich the experience of everyone involved in barbershop in the UK. So, when you see her, give her a hug and remind her how much she’s appreciated, okay?