On Singing All the Lines

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It was almost 7 years ago when I wrote in detail about Making Parts into Lines. At the time I had just been working on the Mary Poppins set for Cottontown Chorus, and it remains a landmark moment in my development as an arranger. Not just because this was the first time any of my arrangements had won a contest gold, but because the process of working through the technical and artistic detail gave me musical insights that have informed my work ever since.

This was also the place where I first articulated the performer’s two roles – as Manager and Communicator – which have become very useful concepts in my coaching as well as my arranging.

So, I’ll point you back there for the hows and whys of giving performers singable and expressive lines. Today I just wanted to share a penny-drop moment I had recently about the how my 10 years with Magenta, and our somewhat unorthodox processes, facilitated this development.

One of our distinctive practices (the reasons behind I which I wrote about here) was that we all sang different parts in different songs. When we started learning a new song, the first couple of weeks we’d learn all four parts for a small section, then, once everyone had had the chance to see what the experience was like on each part, we’d settle on who was going to sing what for that song.

As time went on, I exercised a modicum of control over this. I made sure that newer members got first choice, as they were usually having to slot in for balance on established repertoire. And I kept an eye on everybody’s spread of parts, making sure that we all had a reasonably balanced collection.

But the basic process was: pick what you’d like to sing, and if the balance doesn’t work, we’ll negotiate. And I always chose my part last, picking whatever was needed for optimum balance. This meant that when I was arranging for Magenta, I never knew which part I would end up singing myself.

This, I realise in retrospect, goes a stage further than my previous observation that it keeps you honest as an arranger if you’re going to have look the singers you’re arranging for in the eye and help them out if there’s anything you write that they find difficult. It is more akin the ‘I cut, you choose’ principle of cake-sharing. If you don’t know which straw you will end up with, you are much more motivated to make sure there are no short ones (to leap gaily between metaphors).

I also find it interesting that I only noticed this once I was no longer arranging for Magenta on a regular basis.* I was singing through the parts of an arrangement for another group, and noticed that I wasn’t just checking them for intuitiveness of shape and ease of breathing, but for how fun it would be to sing them.

And a memory floated back into my head of Mandy, who sang with Magenta for some years, saying to me one time when we were learning a new song, ‘Can your remind of the tune for the baritone?’ From a composer’s perspective, or an audience’s, the tune is melody by which we identify the song. But any line that a performer sings, from the perspective of their subjective expressive experience, functions as a tune. It is what they have to communicate with from their heart.

Magenta was the making of me as an arranger in many ways. There are charts from before we started that I am still proud of, but the focused, practical experience of arranging almost everything we sang for over ten years and then having to both teach it and sing it gave me a level of insight and control I would not otherwise I have accessed.

Insight, control, and empathy. The way that I now identify with all voice parts (even those I don’t really have the range to be entirely convincing in) arises directly from the experience of being assigned to any one of them at random.

* But we did have a reunion workshop on July 2nd, as part of the Moseley Festival, so I’ve had one more chance to play this game with this particular group of people.

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