Getting to the heart of things with Red Rock Harmony

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redrocksep16The post-summer-holiday coaching season leaped into action on Saturday with a return visit to Red Rock Harmony in Teignmouth. As I reported back in June, they are preparing for their first experience in national contest at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention in October. It was cheering to be able to let them know how much progress they had made since my last visit.

With seven weeks to go before contest, there were a few moments where technical details needed sorting out, but our work was much more focused on integrating technical control with their imaginative understanding of the song. Tessitura and voicing are so often chosen by composer and arranger to evoke a certain emotional intensity, and a commitment to the narrative meaning will thus supply the level of bodily commitment the lines need to sound resonant and well-supported.

We spent a good deal of the day negotiating with my old friends the Communicator and the Manager: identifying places where the manager was obtruding into the performance and finding ways to let the technical part of the brain relax and trust the intuitive part.

Once area that the manager was not yet ready to let go of was the choreography for their up-tempo song. Every chorus that performs with moves faces the challenge of dealing with the extra cognitive load that choreography adds to the act of singing. When the brains are still working hard at remembering what to do when, there is little spare capacity to deal with anything else, but equally you don’t want to spend a lot of time singing without really paying attention to what you’re doing while you practise the moves.

There are various ways round this. Miming the song while practising the moves is quite a good method, as it keeps the brains musically engaged without practising sub-optimal vocal technique. What we did on Saturday was one of those exercises that is high on what Doug Lemov refers to as ratio - that is, what proportion of the people are making a real effort throughout the activity?

We split the chorus in two, and took it in turns for each half to sing, while the other half practised the moves. This meant that the people working on moves had musical narrative to connect to, but didn’t have to provide it themselves. It also meant that those singing got to spend a good deal of time watching other people working on the moves, itself a very useful exercise. And of course, singing in a semi-chorus requires a good deal more attention and commitment than singing within the comfort blanket of the full sound.

This is the kind of activity that reveals flaws very readily. Which, as a means to improvement is great, but can make the participants wonder if they’re actually any good. It is always a pleasant revelation, therefore, how wonderful it sounds when you put the whole chorus back together again.

We also spent some time talking about goal-setting. Balancing outcome, process and personal goals is always valuable, but especially so when you are doing something for the first time and don’t have a clear sense of what kinds of expectations to form as to likely outcomes.

This discussion led us back into thinking about what fundamentally matters in a performance: sharing the music with your audience. A convention audience is special because it is full of people who you know already like the kind of music you bring, and who will understand what it takes to bring your performance to that stage. But, underneath their appreciation of the technical details, they are human being who like their hearts to be touched and their imaginations to be lit up.

The Manager’s job is an important one. The music sounds much better when it’s sung accurately, and in tune, with matched vowels and crisp consonants (yada yada), but all these things are in service of making it a good experience for the audience. Without the joy, all these are empty. So, whatever else the chorus achieve on their first trip to convention, they have ‘Share the love’ firmly at the top of the to-do list.

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