Coaching the Chordettes

Warm-up action shot: shared rhythmWarm-up action shot: shared rhythm

Saturday took me down to Devon to coach the Chordettes. Last time I worked with them I drove down there in my Vauxhall Corsa, and I replaced that car in early 2005, so it’s been a while. I can still remember the laugh we had about post-vocalic Rs, though, such being the kind of thing that stays with you forever.

Most of our work for the day was on the material they are preparing for LABBS Convention in October, including a ballad that I’ve not previously heard on the LABBS contest stage. I’ve not heard every contest performance of the last 20 years, but I’ve heard a reasonably high proportion, so even if it’s not a premiere I can confidently say it’s rare enough to be worth listening out for.

BABS Convention 2018

Momentum Chorus: photo credit - BABSMomentum Chorus: photo credit - BABS

The three major talking points for the final weekend in May this year were the Ireland’s repeal of the 8th amendment, Momentum’s astonishing performance in the mixed barbershop chorus contest, and the glitzy yet ill-designed refurbishment of the toilets in Harrogate International Centre. Of the three, only the second is strictly relevant for this blog, and the other two I’m sure are covered more thoroughly elsewhere anyway.

If you’ve seen the contest scores, you’ll already know that Momentum’s performance was better than anything we saw in the World Mixed Voice competition in Munich the previous month, though in my view the scores don’t show quite how much better. I’d like to hear them in a head-to-head with Heavy Medal, as I think they could give them a run for their money.

Shaping Lines with Silver Lining

Action shot from the warm-upAction shot from the warm-up

To complete my hat trick of coaching adventures last weekend, I headed off to Coventry on Sunday to work with Silver Lining. They are also preparing new music for LABBS Convention in the autumn, but this time I had the pleasure of getting my teeth into other people’s arrangements. It’s fun coaching my own charts, but you learn different things working with music that comes from someone else’s perspective and experience.

Their new ballad is one of those songs that looks simple on paper: a clear arc of melody without tricksy stuff, supported by intuitive harmonies and no more embellishment than is needed. In practice, this places considerable demands on both the breath and the interpretive mind to sustain the phrases - there is absolutely nowhere to hide. Fortunately, the technical dimension was well in hand, allowing us to focus on the artistic challenges.

Keeping Time with Signature

SignatureMay18

The Saturday after my evening with the Venus Effect, I stayed down south to spend the day with Signature, working with them again on the package including an arrangement of mine they’ll be bringing to contest in the autumn. They had helpfully primed me with specific areas of focus: setting, maintaining, and transitioning between tempi, and using vocal colour to tell the story. If you think that sounds like a fine way to spend a Saturday, you would be right.

I last saw Signature in January (our planned March session having been inconveniently snowed off) and it was very striking how much progress they had made in the interim. The chorus were perhaps less aware of this – after all, they have experienced the improvement incrementally on a week-to-week basis, rather than hearing it all at once. It is always comforting to know that the rehearsal process has been making a difference.

Exploring New Music with the Venus Effect

VEmay18Friday evening took me down to have another session with the Venus Effect. We were continuing our work on building the quartet sound, but had the fun of doing this in the context of a new song I’ve arranged for them. It’s always exciting when someone brings a new song to the barbershop contest stage, but even more so when it’s a song written this century. It won’t be ready for Prelims next month, but keep your ears open for it come LABBS Convention in October.

We approached the harmonic dimension of the work via duetting as a means to glue the parts together. It’s interesting to note how this offers different insights with music in the early stages of development than it does with more familiar music. As a method for refining well-known music, it focuses the ears on execution – matching of vowel and tone colour, balance, and details of articulation. With new music, it reveals more about the musical structure, and the relationship between the parts. In particular, a series of inner phnerts between lead and baritone emerged as a key element giving energy and sparkle to the texture.

Soapbox: On 'The Golliwog’s Cakewalk'

soapboxEver since I started writing about race and repertoire a couple of years ago, I have been quietly fretting about a particular piece of piano music that I, like many piano students, learned in my teens for one of my grade exams. It is still appearing on exam syllabuses today. Earlier this spring, these private misgivings became public when I found myself involved in an online conversation about its problematics with a group of pianists and piano teachers, many of whom also teach and perform it.

The piece in question is ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ from Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite. The conversation has stayed with me since, forcing me to clarify my own feelings about the piece. I’m reflecting on those feelings here to try and bring some coherence to them in the aftermath of the difficult experience of finding myself at odds with people I’d usually identify with quite strongly. I keep telling myself it’s the uncomfortable experiences that lead to growth.

Swinging with Norwich Harmony

NHmay18

I spent Saturday working with my friends at Norwich Harmony. Most of our attention was on rhythm in their latest addition to their contest repertoire, with harmonic interludes to vary the musical diet.

We had two main priorities in working with swing rhythms. One was getting the backbeat framework consistently in place, with the main pulses on 2 & 4. As with many a cappella swing tunes, sometimes the surface rhythm facilitated this, but there were also quite straight-looking rhythms that nonetheless needed enlivening by the overall swing flavour.

Bucket-list breathing

This is a dual purpose post. Its first aim is to fulfil a request to explain an approach to breathing taught by Jim Henry at the LABBS Directors Weekend 3 years ago for someone who wasn’t at it. Its second is to reflect on my experience teaching that approach to others, from which I have drawn some wider conclusions about teaching.

So, first to the method. Dr Jim called this 1-2-3 breathing, as it focuses your attention to breathing in 3 stages. First, you breathe in down to the bottom of your lungs, letting your waist and lower ribs expand (1), then to the middle of your chest allowing your ribs and mid-back widen (2), then finally top up beneath your breast-bone (3). So far, so good, you think, this will get a nice full, deep breath and prevent clavicular breathing.

The bit I particularly love about this approach, though, comes next: you let the air out (whether breathing or singing) in the same order it came in. So you use the air at the bottom of your lungs first, squeezing your waist in (1), then your mid-chest, allowing your ribs to contract (2), and then use the top-up under the breast-bone last (3). This guarantees that you keep your support in play right to the end of the breath, and prevents that visible deflation of posture you sometimes see towards the ends of phrases.

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