Soapbox: Back on Teach Tracks

soapbox
Before you read this: I know everyone will hate me by the end of this post. So I'd like you to know a more helpful one is coming up next time

I know, I know, I have something of a downer on the whole thing of learning tracks, we’ve been here before. Though actually it’s not so much the tracks themselves that I have an issue with - even I am not so churlish as to deny their various usefulnesses - but with the lazy and unhelpful habits they facilitate in people who should know better. Today my gripe is with arrangers and chorus directors who don’t bother to do their jobs properly and expect teach tracks to take up the slack.

The fundamental point (and I had better get this out before I annoy everyone too much!) is that parrot-fashion mimicry is not the same as learning. And that even accurate mimicry is not possible if your brain hasn’t grasped the meaning of what you’re copying. You know how it’s hard to catch someone’s name if they’re from a country whose language you’re not familiar with? It’s like that. ‘Learning the dots’ has to involve making sense of the music if it is to succeed, and this is no more guaranteed through listening than it is through reading. We sing what we understand, not what we hear; and if we don’t understand it, we make inferences that may or may not end up being valid in the context of the whole.

Artistry in Amersham

The customary hastily-snapped warm-up pic...The customary hastily-snapped warm-up pic...

Tuesday evening took me down to have a whirlwind session with my friends at Amersham A Cappella. We got through an unbelievable quantity of stuff in a little over two hours, through a combination of some virtuoso prioritising from their director Helen Lappert and me (to blow our own trumpets unashamedly) and the stupendous level of up-for-it-ness the chorus brings to everything they do. It helps that they have very secure technical skills so we were able to work on artistry confident that their voices would be able to deliver what the songs needed.

We spent the first part of the session working on my medley of ‘Hit Me With a Hot Note’ and ‘Too Darn Hot’ that they won a silver medal with at LABBS Convention last year, and then took a whistle-stop tour through their repertoire, encompassing a new barbershop ballad, a Katy Perry song, a spiritual and a madrigal. As you can imagine, this makes it quite a tricky evening to summarise!

BAC Hat Trick

BAC2

Sunday was my third visit to Bristol A Cappella in 2016, and the last one before they sing as the first competitor in the UK’s first ever mixed barbershop chorus competition in Harrogate at the end of May. This is going to be a significant adventure for them, as whilst there is a strong core of barbershop experience in the group, the majority have no prior experience either of the specific experience of a barbershop convention, or the general experience of travelling that far and staying away from home to participate in a singing contest. But if you’re going to go on an adventure, you may as well make history while you’re at it, eh?

Our focus was thus on performance communication and mental preparation. We had a couple of technical details that needed attention, but we got them out of the way early so we could get back out of our left brains. And in the event even these turned out to be about meaning rather than technique: the notes were right but the chords weren’t locking because people were struggling to work out why they were right. Once we made sense of the progressions, the chords came into focus.

When to Use (and When to Avoid) Minor 7th Chords

So, if you’re not interested in the nitty-gritty of barbershop arranging, look away now. We have a very specific question to consider today, vital for anyone who has to choose which chords to use in a particular context, but pretty irrelevant for everyone else. Though, it does have a wider context, which both gives it a broader applicability and risks muddying the waters.

Here’s the question, raised in a group of barbershop arrangers, that set me off:

Question; why is the barbershop style opposed (for lack of a better word) to the min7 chord? I personally love the sound of it, and yet I have been told by other barbershop arrangers to avoid it where possible. Just curious why?

As you can imagine, we had some responses leaping in to the defence of the minor 7th’s beauty and/or the arranger’s right to pick whatever damn chord they choose (it wasn’t clear exactly which they were defending, but it was clear that they considered the advice out of order). So we need to step back and ask: is the barbershop style opposed to the minor 7th?

Conversation Repair, Musicking Repair

You know when an acquaintance makes a comment that gets you thinking on and off for some months? I had one of those moments back in December and have been seeing new things in my music-making ever since. Her comment was about how she had always felt musical performance to be a high-pressure activity, as there was the imperative to keep going at all costs. She contrasted this with activities such as conversation in which people are constantly making mistakes and fixing them; conversation repair is part of the collaborative endeavour of interaction.

Now, I certainly recognised that sense of pressure she identified as something that probably also contribution to my own struggles with performance anxiety through youth and early adulthood. But I also recognised her description of conversation repair as something musicians do all the time in rehearsal (and, indeed, in performance).

Just Peachy Coaching

justpeachyContinuing the contest-preparation season, I had a visit on Monday from Just Peachy quartet, also gearing up to LABBS prelims in June. This is a new quartet in several senses - not only have they been singing together for only 6 months, but only one has previous quartet experience, and two of them are also very new to barbershop singing. It is most exciting to help people at these early stages of their journey!

(Oh, and for the numerate amongst you, the fifth person is an extra baritone, Helen, who will be kindly standing in so they can compete despite availability difficulties.)

Something I first noticed teaching piano 20 years ago is that when people come along having identified something they’d like help with, they’re often more than halfway there with that particular challenge. The fact they ask about it signals that they are aware of the need for attention and have already been working on it. There may be things that they’ve not yet put their minds to where I can actually make more of a difference.

Swinging with Revival

RevivalSaturday brought Revival quartet over for a coaching session in preparation for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers quartet prelims in June. This is a quartet that is recently formed, but brings together a lot of experience, each of the singers having sung in previous champion quartets within the association. Indeed, three of them had come here for coaching with previous quartets, so from my perspective it felt more like a reunion than a revival!

Our focus was on swing song that was in good general shape, both in terms of technical control and musical characterisation, and so ripe for bringing its detail to life. The starting-point for swing is inevitably rhythmic shape: back-beat, swung quavers, flavour/feel of the groove in dialogue with tempo. Interestingly, though, once that framework is secure (which, with a couple of momentary exceptions, it was here) you find yourself working a lot more with texture and orchestration.

So...What Do I Do With My Mouth?

silent_mouthThe benefits for a choral director of not mouthing the words are something that I have explored on several occasions in this blog over the years. Let's assume for now that we've covered those points well enough to make the point; I'll append a list of those previous posts at the end here* for anyone who's not seen them yet. For today, our question is the perfectly reasonable one of what to do instead.

It was asked by a conductor I worked with recently who found himself at something of a loss about how to use his face once he stopped mouthing the words. My first thought when he said this, I have to say, was admiration and delight that he had taken the advice seriously and acted upon it rather than the more usual response of making cogent arguments about why it is hard to do so. My second thought was that it's a good question, and one that other directors who grapple with this element of technical control might also be interested in, and thus a prime candidate for a blog post.

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