Coaching

Manspreading and Silly Games with Bristol A Cappella

The traditional warm-up pic: this time with buntingThe traditional warm-up pic: this time with bunting

Saturday took me down to Bristol for the first of two visits this month to my friends at Bristol A Cappella. We started the day doing some detail work on an arrangement of Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s My Life’ by their director Iain Hallam.

Part of the process of balancing a complex texture is increasing the awareness of those singing the accompanying parts of how the whole fits together. But there’s also a certain tone quality you want from the melody to assert itself through the complexity. We found this partly through technical means (getting the resonance onto the teeth), but also through the more holistic concept of manspreading.

You know how when you sit on a train with a shared armrest and the bloke next to you inhabits it all, with his elbow poking into your space? And with his knees all splayed outwards so they protrude into where your legs should go? That’s manspreading. I had heard of a particularly egregious form of it recently in a facebook conversation about someone who had used both hand dryers in a public toilet, one for each hand.

More Musicking in Yorkshire

WRmar2017

Wednesday night took me back to Yorkshire for my second evening of music-making with Sally McLean in a month, this time with the chorus she is featured working with in my choral conducting book, The White Rosettes. And, like my last visit, the task was to work on a new arrangement in its early stages of development.

So, once again it’s all going to be a bit cryptic, as I’m not going to tell you what the song is before they are ready for the big reveal. I realise that this makes the reading experience a bit abstract, but it will all be worth it when you hear the contest premiere in October as they sing to defend their LABBS and European Championship titles.

A theme throughout the evening was the different ways a piece of music can be challenging. There are several dimensions in which I had deliberately chosen not to stretch the chorus in this arrangement. Apart from a somewhat rangy melody (the composer’s choice, that one), the vocal parts stay well within the compass the chorus are used to. The texture isn’t unduly complex. The chord choices are in the main the obvious ones suggested by the melody – indeed, quite often the harmony is less complex than the original. And the lines have had received a lot of work on making them intuitively singable.

Harmonious Yorkshire Spirits

SpiritFeb17Thursday evening took me up to the Vale of York to work with Spirit of Harmony on some arrangements I delivered to them last year. I had arranged for the chorus several times some years ago, and also worked with a couple of smaller ensembles from within the chorus, but this was my first time coaching the full body of singers. As ever, I’m not going to tell you what the songs are so as not to anticipate the moment the chorus chooses to reveal them, but I can reflect on the process.

It’s an endlessly fascinating exercise in practical aesthetics negotiating how music should go: who decides, and how you decide. As an arranger I’ll have always imagined the delivery in depth as part of the arranging process – as Neil Watkins used to say, the arranger’s task is to conjour up the full performance in their mind, then write that down. But equally, it is the performer’s job and prerogative to bring their own creative imagination to the shaping of the narrative.

More Artistry in Amersham

AmershamJan17Tuesday last week took me down to Amersham to work with current LABBS chorus champions, Amersham A Cappella on the wonderful ballad that helped secure their gold medal back in October. For, they may already triumphed with it, but there was still more music to hidden within in, and my task was to help them bring it out.

The song is a 1950s adaptation of Chopin’s Etude in E major, which added words to the outer, melodic sections to turn it into a love song. The challenge for a pianist is how to string these relatively slow-moving notes together into a continuous line, given that every note on a piano dies as soon as it is struck.

Singers obviously have the advantage of being able to produce a genuine continuity of sound, but they still need to generate flow and flexibility out a line of even crotchets, and there is a lot to be learned from listening to how pianists handle this. So, I had sent some listening homework to the chorus in advance – three pianists’ performances, Jo Stafford’s classic recording of the ballad, and the Ambassadors of Harmony’s performance from the 2012 BHS International Convention – along with some commentary of what to listen out for.

New Feature: Availability Calendar

availabilityJanuary is one of the points in the year when I seem to spend a lot of time responding to emails enquiring when I am available for coaching and workshop bookings. And I spend a lot of it living with a mild background anxiety that, once I've told various groups which dates are free, and they've gone back to consult with their members, they're all going to come back and ask for the same day.

The obvious solution to this, and one which it has only taken me 7 years to think of, is to publish which dates are possible so people can consult amongst themselves before getting in touch to book. At the least, this will save us all a cycle of email toing and froing, and at best it will prevent disappointment when somebody snaffles your preferred date first.

Miscellaneous Observations from BinG! Harmony College

Cy Wood in actionCy Wood in actionAs I reported earlier in the month, I had a stupendously enriching time with the good people of Barbershop in Germany at their Harmony College. Having done all the big-picture reflections when I first came home, I find my notebook has a pile of interesting observations, none of which is big enough to blog about in themselves, but all of which are too useful not to share.

So here is a pleasant miscellany of observations of things I found stimulating. Mostly, I see now I write them up, because they were specific instances of general principles I have been writing about over the last couple of years. Always good to see something you theorise about played out in real life.

Back with Brunel

Brunelsep16I spent Saturday with my friends at Brunel Harmony in Saltash. They’ve seen a lot of changes since I was with them last year, and will be heading to LABBS Convention in the autumn with a rather smaller chorus than last year and a new director out front. And the changes had meant they were slightly behind themselves in terms of the preparation schedule they might have chosen.

But don’t let any of those circumstances worry you: they are in fine fettle and good voice. There is an impressiveness to the body of sound you can generate with a large chorus, but the clarity a smaller group can produce has its own exciting qualities. And notwithstanding the changes, there is still plenty of continuity of experience, which allowed us to build on last year’s work on breath and characterisation.

Getting to the heart of things with Red Rock Harmony

redrocksep16The post-summer-holiday coaching season leaped into action on Saturday with a return visit to Red Rock Harmony in Teignmouth. As I reported back in June, they are preparing for their first experience in national contest at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention in October. It was cheering to be able to let them know how much progress they had made since my last visit.

With seven weeks to go before contest, there were a few moments where technical details needed sorting out, but our work was much more focused on integrating technical control with their imaginative understanding of the song. Tessitura and voicing are so often chosen by composer and arranger to evoke a certain emotional intensity, and a commitment to the narrative meaning will thus supply the level of bodily commitment the lines need to sound resonant and well-supported.

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