Essex Double

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After my day with Rhapsody in Peterborough, I had a day in Essex coaching Flame quartet in the morning and Chorus Iceni in the afternoon. Flame is a new quartet, though its members bring a considerable breadth and depth of previous experience to the party, while Chorus Iceni are fresh back from achieving their best results ever (by a considerable margin) at LABBS Convention last month. So there was a good sense of momentum in both sessions, if for different reasons.

With Flame, we spent a good deal of time using a new coaching technique I had actually devised the day before with Rhapsody. I have been advocating slow practice as a way to get into the detail and give yourself time really to hear the harmonies for a good long time. But this has usually been an analytical process with a technical focus, rather than serving artistic goals.

What we started doing last weekend was taking a fast song and rehearsing it as if it were a ballad. So, slowing it down, and taking it out of its strict rhythmic framework, but preserving its sense of song. You need to take it in small chunks and repeat them a few times as negotiate how it's going to flow in this new shape, but with a confident director (Rhapsody) or experienced quartet singers (Flame), it doesn't take long to settle in.

And it's amazing what you discover. First, you find all the harmonies that the brain had been skipping over in a fast tempo - the chords on a weak beat, or on a weak syllable - and these are often the colourful and interesting ones you might linger on in a slow song to ease you over the barline, or anticipate a significant lyric. Then you notice how closely and intuitively the harmonic shape of a song matches the emotional shape of the lyric - something that people don't always notice when they're busy tapping their feet. And you never skate over an embellishment when you're in a ballad mode.

So, doing this allows you to find just how much music is in there, and gives you time to appreciate what it's doing. At the same time, the competent technician part of your personality gets to sort out all those useful things like balance and vowel shape that bring harmonies into focus and meld multiple notes into chords.

When you put it back into rhythm, it just sounds amazing. All that music is still in there, all that emotional nuance and meaning, underlying the spritz of the rhythm. And your Manager doesn't have to try and remember all the detail, because your Communicator has it in the bag.

Over at Chorus Iceni, my primary task was to coach them on my arrangement of 'Diamonds are Forever', which dates back to 2007, but which I had never heard before. One of the things that having the arranger to coach offers is an insight into why details are as they are - what artistic effect something aims to achieve, what technical problem something else aims to solve.

What I found interesting here was that, particularly at first, I really could not remember what I was thinking at the time of writing. But I could still work out why things were as they were.

One particular moment had the leads singing a different rhythm from the harmony parts, for instance, and looking through the passage, it became clear to me that this was to build in a coherent breathing plan for all parts - and once this was explained, the synchronisation issues introduced disappeared as everyone made sense of the breathing patterns.

Another had two parts singing a pick up into a phrase, with the other two joining them partway through. This is the kind of thing I do as an arranger to leaven a homophonic texture. If everyone is singing all the same words at the same time throughout, it can get a bit heavy, or chewy (especially in repertoire that arranges non-barbershop music for barbershop groups). What was interesting here was that I thought I had drawn that conclusion a good while after 2007 - but here I was using the technique before I had fully articulated it to myself.

Part of the coaching at Iceni was being part of the process of upgrading their repertoire to their new level of singing skills. On the first run-through of the afternoon, it was a funny mix of some very clean, melodic singing, and some muddier, more speech-quality singing. This is the classic experience of ensembles that have made significant strides in technical skills in a short time. The muscle memory of recent rehearsal experience fights with the muscle memory associated with when they originally learned the song.

What is enjoyable in these situations is that the rehearsal techniques that raised the skill level in the first place still work, and actually work much quicker than when first adopted. It just takes the conscious application of them to notice: oh, that's the old habit, need to upgrade. Habits can be hard to shift, but once you have a method that does so successfully, you get better and better at using it.

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