BinG! Harmony College: Initial Impressions

This was the view from my bedroom window...This was the view from my bedroom window...I’m starting writing this post on the train along the Rhine valley from Oberwesel to Frankfurt at dawn. After several days of glorious autumnal sunshine, the clouds are hanging down over the hilltops. In both guises, you can see why the early Romantics were so willing to mythologise this area.

I was about to write that this is almost incidental to the joy and richness the last few days have seen at BinG! Harmony College, but then I thought - maybe the setting helps more than you think. I suddenly remembered how I found myself at culturally rich events in green hilly landscapes in different countries in successive weeks of summer 2009 and wondering to what extent a landscape facilitates artistic growth.

Anyhow, the view is such that I am pretty sure I won’t get this post finished in this one trip, but I wanted to start getting the ideas down while the impressions are fresh.

Dr Jim’s Lemov Moments

At the moment when Jim Henry served as guest educator at the Directors Weekend I ran for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers back in July, I had just spent two months dipping into Doug Lemov’s intensely useful book Teach Like a Champion. Having by then written a good handful of blog posts about how Lemov’s classroom techniques can play out in the choral rehearsal (and having made notes for more posts, which came along later), my brain was primed to spot them in action. And Dr Jim - seamlessly and without fanfare - provided a walking compendium of their application throughout the weekend.

Here are some of Dr Jim’s Lemov’s moments. You can see him in action in the clip above, but these comments come from notes made over the entire three days

The Meaning of Keys at Green Street Blues


Sunday saw the LABBS Convention-preparation season continue with my friends from Green Street Blues. They are taking two of my arrangements to contest this year, one that they commissioned and first performed a few years back, and another newly arranged for them earlier this year.

As might be expected from this programme, we spent far more time on the new song, exploring its structure as a means to develop the expressive shape of the performance, in particular in relation to the pattern of tonal centres the arrangement uses.

(This is fun. I am always careful not to spoil the big reveal when premieres are coming up, so I won’t tell you what song it is. But I can tell you which keys bits of it are in, and leave you to try and guess what song it could be. The original song stays in one key throughout, so you’ll be guessing from the emotional content of the lyrics. If you don’t want to play the guessing game, of course, then just come along to Bournemouth next month and they’ll sing it to you.)

Developing Section Leaders

Since I had to travel down to Plymouth the day before my coaching day with Brunel Harmony, their director Delyth Knight had a brainwave about how to use the evening before. Her family are involved in the musical leadership of several choruses in the area, so she felt it would be a good opportunity to offer a training session to section leaders/music team members from several of them together.

Interestingly, I have been toying with offering training for music teams as a specific service for a while, as it strikes me as a way to support the ensemble’s development in a way that could add significant value relative to the time spent. And, whilst there are plenty of training opportunities to develop the musical and vocal skills these roles need, there is relatively little support for how to develop the coaching and mentoring skills they often entail.

Then, while I was toying with these ideas, two directors got in touch independently to ask about them. It is starting to look like an idea whose time has come.

Brunel Harmony and the Integrated Song

BrunelI spent Saturday working with Brunel Harmony on the contest package they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in October. They had got to the point where things were generally in place - music and choreography largely embedded, and the overall concept and intentions clear - so what it needed next was a combination of polishing of execution and bringing out the details.

What we found ourselves doing to achieve this, though, was integrating technical control of the various performance elements with a sense of characterisation and narrative. It was a classic example of how you can start with any one item of technique, and find that as you explore it, it turns out to be connected with all kinds of other areas, both technical and expressive.

Soapbox: ‘Creativity’ is Not an Excuse for Unprofessionalism

I’ve been wondering for a while if I’m going to have a rant about this, and it seems the thought won’t go away so here goes. The following graphic has been doing the rounds on social media and it has been irritating me quite disproportionately for what is intended to be a friendly and empathy-inducing little picture.
To start with, let’s acknowledge the psychological truths that it does capture with some success. The red phase says something valid about how resistance to a task is proportionate to its demands on your brain’s background-processing functions. The things that are the hardest to start are the ones that, once embarked upon, will invade your dreams. And the flurry of work up to the deadline reminds us about the end-effect, and the way it so helpfully refreshes attention as we head into the finish line.

Structure, Ornament and Barbershop Arranging

By the end of the post you'll know why I'm using a pic of this quartet...By the end of the post you'll know why I'm using a pic of this quartet...On Sunday I visited my old chums from the LABBS Music Category at their September judging seminar. (Well, some of my old chums, plus a new addition since I moved on, which was fun.) They had invited me back to offer a session on arranging, following up on an exercise they had all undertaken as part of the process to recertify as judges back in the Spring. This was great, as it meant that not only did everyone have a common example we could work with as a central focus, but I could use their work as the basis for my preparation, as this told me exactly what they were already good at versus where help might be useful.

As I built up my list of useful things to discuss, I gradually realised that some things that - on the surface - look like different subjects are actually part of the same issue. And as we worked through the ideas together, it occurred to me that the way barbershop has traditionally theorised its harmonic language actually obscures this issue to an extent.

Phrase-end Embellishments and Voicing

swipeFurther to my post a few weeks back about phrase-end swipes, I was recently looking at some arrangements to offer advice on, and noticed that the categories of swipe behaviour I discussed there could offer a useful framework for making decisions about voicing. In particular, the shape and internal energy of the embellishment can usefully inform which voice(s) move, and in what directions at the ends of phrases.

My last post in this subject was specifically about swipes, but I think the categories work for the harmonic content for echoes as well. Indeed, the question of who is doing what, to what effect is more immediately audible in an echo, since the use of extra word sounds draws attention to the embellishing activity.

But (and here is a nice new little guideline that I have only really articulated to myself as I type here), the expressive shape of a phrase-end embellishment should make sense in a purely harmonic sense as a swipe, whether or not we decide to add extra texture or rhythmicising effects through added word sounds. (You know, in much the same way that the delivery of a melody should make sense even to someone who doesn’t speak the language it’s sung in.)

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