April 2010

Carfield Community Choir

Carfield Community ChoirCarfield Community ChoirI had a fun evening on Monday with Carfield Community Choir in Sheffield. They started a few years back as a choir of parents of children at a local primary school, and have gradually taken on an independent identity – though they still rehearse at the school, they have gradually acquired members who are not associated with it. They are directed by Liz Nicholas, who stepped out to keep things going when their original director moved on. Liz, like me, started out as a pianist (in fact we both studied with the same teacher, though not at the same time), who gradually moved through accompaniment to leading singers as she discovered how much more fun you can have making music with other people than alone in a practice room.

The workshop for Carfield was a bespoke version of my sessions on Developing the Ensemble and Aural Skills for Choral Groups. These are clearly related themes, so it took its focus in the overlap areas, with an emphasis on the listening dimension of developing togetherness as a performing group and the mutual responsiveness dimension of aural skills.

Art & Education

I was recently asked to write a reference for a barbershop chorus that was applying for charitable status, in response to the following question they had been asked:

Please provide independent expert evidence to show the performances are of sufficient educational merit to raise aesthetic taste.

As it happens, it’s quite a good chorus, so I could happily write in their support, and it’s quite easy to point to reasonably objective level indicators with barbershop, because the contest system is so effectively standardised internationally. The criteria are so explicit and the training regimens so thorough, that you can look at a collection of scores and articulate in some detail what they say about performance quality.

But what I found interesting was the set of assumptions built into the question.

Director Focus: Peter Kennedy

Peter Kennedy: in performance with Green Street Blues, October 2009Peter Kennedy: in performance with Green Street Blues, October 2009When I was down with Green Street Blues last week, I was very interested to observe how their director, Peter Kennedy, worked with the chorus during the warm-up. The musical content was nothing you wouldn’t expect – vocalises first to ‘Vvv’, then to ‘va-va-va’, gradually expanding the range of the voices used. But there were two features of the way he went about them that were intelligently and effectively non-standard.

The first was that he really directed the warm-ups, shaping them with sufficient rubato that anyone who lapsed back into scales-as-autopilot would find themselves out of sync within a very few notes. This achieved several things: it warmed up the faculty of attention as well as the voices, it gave the chorus the chance to practice observing and interpreting Peter’s gestures, and it gave Peter the chance to practice his conducting technique.

Going for Green

gsb17apr10On Saturday I was back with my friends in Sevenoaks as the first half of a double-bill weekend of coaching for Green Street Blues. They were spending the Sunday with Mark Grindall working on vocal issues, and it was good to have him around during the day so we could coordinate our to-do lists. (He also took this photo – thanks Mark!) Since I saw the chorus last September, they have acquired about 25% more singers, bronze chorus medals from LABBS and the title of Top Choir of Kent, and also – not surprisingly - a certain sense of confidence.

Into the Zone

zonesI’ve mentioned before some of the useful conceptual contributions that Chris Davidson made to BABS Directors Colleges over the years, especially with introducing chorus directors to Kotter’s model of how to effect change. This diagram was another model he presented that is just one of those ‘oh yes that describes exactly how the world is’ type ideas.

So the first thing it tells us is that in order to learn anything, we have to get out of our comfort zones. That sounds kind of obvious, except that most people are very happy to spend a lot of their time studying/rehearsing/practising doing routine things in a generally comfortable way and kidding ourselves that we’re making progress. And because we’re involved in some kind of activity we’ve labeled ‘work’, we can feel nice and virtuous about what we’re doing without encountering anything that is going to threaten our egos. (This is why I spent so much of my youth practising scales.) If we want to learn, rather than simply reconfirm our current skills, we need to get out of our psychic armchairs.

Eternal Light: A Review

Eternal LightI recently spent an absorbing afternoon getting acquainted with Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light: A Requiem from 2008. The piece was commissioned by London Musici, and was recorded by Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral Choir some months before its premiere with the Rambert Dance Company. As you might imagine from Goodall’s previous work, it sits squarely in the post-Rutter choral tradition of new music that is accessible to amateur choirs.

On a related theme…

In my recent post about the concept of ‘theme’ as it is used in barbershop culture, I neglected to point out its background. It is a relatively new term in the scheme of things, having been introduced into the vocabulary of the judging system in the 1993 category changes.

Maybe I should take a step back for those who aren’t familiar with the history of the barbershop judging system. Whilst there has been a relatively stable approach since the 1940s in that contests are judged by several people, each of whom has a set number of points to award in a specific category with its own particular focus, the number of categories, their names and their scoring methods have undergone periodic revisions over the years.*

Range Conversions

I had an email over the weekend from Leah, who had been interested in my arrangement of Michael Bublé’s Everything, in which she pointed out:

It's kind of hard for us to try it without knowing what ranges the song will have in a women's key. Can you give me an idea of that? thanks!

And I thought – I bet she’s not the only person in the world who would look at ranges for an arrangement in the other gender's key and ask that question. So, rather than just sending her a quick email, I thought I’d take a bit longer and write a whole blog post in the hope it will be helpful for other people too.

Musical Unity and Musical Vision

The Romantic idealThe Romantic idealOne of the aesthetic truisms that I absorbed during my undergraduate education, and have spent the subsequent years questioning,* is that great music has the quality of unity. This was purported to arrive in the music as the unconscious result of the composer’s genius, but could be uncovered via technical analysis. There were different dimensions in which you could identify this unity, Schenkerian tonal coherence and more or less hidden motivic connection in the manner of Réti being chief among them.

Even as a student, I was faintly perplexed by the equation of a spiritual attribute with concrete, technical details. I had a composer friend who was deeply taken by this aesthetic, and I used to ask him why, if the point about unity in great music was that it was created unconsciously, did he spend so much conscious effort constructing the motivic structure of his music? (He, on the other hand, felt I wasn’t taking our art sufficiently seriously when I upheld a valid role for whim in the compositional process.)

Arranging from someone else’s arrangement

Vocal SixVocal Six‘The Things We Do for Love’, due to enter my catalogue next week, is the first of a smattering of arrangements I’ve been asked to do where the people who commissioned it were inspired by another a cappella group’s rendition of the song. In this case, it was the Vocal Six’s arrangement. Another example due to become available in the coming months is Sense of Sound’s performance of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’ on the TV series Last Choir Standing.

On first sight, I found this a slightly intimidating task. When you’re transforming a well-known original to an a cappella ensemble, there are all sorts of ways you can worry about not living up to the original, but you know that at the heart of the game is the dual sense of recognisability and distance. The pleasures derive from both connecting with the original version and hearing it in a new guise.

But when someone has already leapt across that gap, what is the second arranger to do?

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