Chords of Crystal

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crystalchordsI spent Sunday up in Manchester working with Crystal Chords chorus, who are preparing for their second LABBS Convention under the direction of Monica Funnell. Their first contest together last autumn presented an ensemble that was developing fast, but still felt a little like work-in-progress. In the intervening months they have clearly settled into their new level of skills, although they still have that capacity to pick up new ideas quickly that characterises chorus that are undergoing rapid improvement.

The result was a most productive session. As a chorus, they were very open to coaching, and took evident pleasure in their discoveries and achievements. And we really got the benefit of the work on good vocal habits they have undertaken over the last year: at no point were our musical intentions held back by limitations in vocal technique.

We spent most of our time on their ballad, which they had commissioned from me back in February, and which will be premiered in October. (Their other song is also newly-commissioned, arranged for them by David King. And you’ll notice I’ve not named either one: this is so the chorus gets the pleasure of unveiling them.) As I’ve found before, it’s interesting coaching your own chart, as in some ways you have insights into it that other people might not see, but in many other ways, when you get to hear it, it’s no longer yours, it’s the ensemble’s. And then you learn new things about the music through the process of coaching that you weren’t necessarily aware of while arranging – so in that way it’s just like coaching anybody else’s arrangements.

In this case, I was able to share the idea that song itself was primarily about melody, and as a result I had made every effort to give all four parts the opportunity to sing melodically. For the harmony parts, it’s not just a matter of supporting the tune, they also have their own portions of tunefulness to deliver. What I had possibly not noticed quite so much before coaching the chart was how much of the inner workings of expressiveness played out in the baritone line. There were two or three places that only really came alive once the other parts gave the baris space to carry the music to the places their line needed to go.

We spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the dimension of weight/lightness. At the start of the session, the delivery presented a perfectly sensible approach to pacing, but the whole didn’t quite flow. The key here was not to mess with timing (the forward dimension), but to think about the up/down dimension.

We had three main approaches here, all strongly gestural. In the verse, which has a light, almost scurrying feel, we traced the flight of a butterfly. You know how in cartoons, an insect flies about trailing a dotted line? That’s the line we traced through the melody.

The ballad’s chorus moves into a more flowing rhythm – not a strong beat or groove, but with a definite sense of transfer of weight as in strolling along. So, we strolled. This helped keep the tempo moving, but more importantly, it helped everything flow. It was noticeable that details of vocal craft such as arriving together cleanly on the target vowel came right whenever the sense of movement was present, and went out of focus if ever it was dropped.

Around this gentle strolling rhythm, the song unfolds in longer melodic arcs. The imagery for this started out as a ski jump, but soon migrated to the trajectory of throwing a ball and catching it. In each phrase there was a clear sense of where the throw and catch took place, and what went in between gave a clear sense of how hard and high the ball needed to be thrown to land at the right spot. I had a brief moment of regret that I hadn’t actually taken a ball with me to demonstrate, but then I realised that whilst I could reliably catch a mimed ball, with real balls I am rather less coordinated.

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