Helping Red Rock Harmonise

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Red Rock HarmonyLast weekend took me down to Teignmouth in Devon to work with Red Rock Harmony as they prepare for their first outing to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. The chorus is about five years old, but has only recently got to a point in their development when they felt like taking the leap into contest on a national stage. Some of their number have experienced this with other choruses, but many will be new in.

I arrived at the point where their convention songs were memorised reasonably confidently, but still needed bringing into focus in places. The chorus were pretty consistently singing the right notes, but not always with a full grasp of why those particular notes were there, so the chords weren’t always locking into true.

In a couple of places, I found myself choosing solve this by simplifying the parts, producing lines with fewer awkward jumps. Given my general position of jiggering with other people’s arrangements, I did feel something of a hypocrite for this. I rationalised the decision to myself on two grounds. First, I wasn’t actually changing any of the chords, just revoicing them, so from an audience perspective, there wasn’t much difference. Second, the arrangement was written for an ensemble that was far more experienced than Red Rock, and gestures that would have offered them an opportunity to display virtuosity just didn’t suit a chorus in their early stages of development.

Incidentally, this second point tells us something about the general accessibility of barbershop music. Yes, there are some arrangements, and some moments in arrangements, that are just too hard for less accomplished groups, but there is actually a huge amount of the repertoire that is not only accessible, but rewarding for groups at a very wide range of skills. The gradient between beginner and expert in terms of material is much shallower than in some other musical disciplines. As I documented in my book on barbershop, the culture has a strong egalitarian streak, and it is interesting to see it playing out in the repertoire like this.

I still don’t really hold with jiggering with other people’s arrangements as a point of principle. But I also believe in making the most efficient use of people’s coaching time to help them succeed. It turns out that the latter belief over-rules the former if I have to choose.

Note changes were the exception, though. Most of the time it was a matter of slowing things down and taking them apart to help people make sense of the relationship between the parts. This was painstaking, deep, intensive work, and I can think of few happier ways to spend a weekend. I love the diagnostic process, listening to the voices to work out what these singers need, right here, right now, to gather the chords into glorious ringing coherence.

The list of things that were needed at some point or another included:

  • Adjusting the vowel
  • Adjusting the resonance/placement
  • Identifying which other part(s) singers needed to listen out for in that chord
  • Understanding the expressive colour of the chord
  • Understanding where the line was heading
  • Hearing the note relative to the key note, not just in relation to the notes immediately before and after it

But the process wasn’t as technical or left-brained as this list sounds. A lot of the interventions were sung or gestured, not spoken, and while we may have spent significant periods of time on very short passages of music, that time was primarily spent singing.

The thing that makes this rewarding for all of us is that, as you gradually find the place it needs to be, it just sounds more and more beautiful. And it’s not just that removing musical and vocal obstacles produces a technically cleaner sound, it’s that it also becomes a happier sound, a more grounded sound, a more confident and settled-in-the-world sound. It is very audible when that bit of the singers’ brains that likes harmony is getting its box ticked.

And once you get the heads and the voices in that place, it just gets easier to do things well in general. The tonal centre becomes more reliable; the tone becomes more consistent; the expressive shape becomes more nuanced and natural. It is very good for the singers’ self-belief to sound like that.

One factor that really helped us was the structure of the weekend. We had a full day’s work on the Saturday, followed by a half-day on the Sunday. (The original plan had been for 4 hours on Sunday, but enough chorus members needed to go off for family commitments on Father’s Day that the plan changed to 3 hours, with time for a planning/debrief session with the Music Team to finish.) This meant that we had the benefit of a night’s sleep to embed our day’s work, and then the opportunity to consolidate the next morning.

Any deep learning process needs sleep and assimilation time to cement the progress. Some things that were hard work one day come out sounding natural and easy after the brain has had some downtime to integrate them. Other things go out of focus again, as the brain loses some of the detail overnight. It was so useful to reconvene to discover which bits of our previous day’s work fell into which category and to refresh those bits that hadn’t quite embedded first time.

We wouldn’t have managed another full day - or at least, if we were planning a second full day we’d have had to pace ourselves differently on the Saturday - but this structure really felt like we were getting the best of both worlds.

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