Story-telling with Royal Effect
Good Friday brought Royal Effect quartet to visit for a coaching session. They are preparing for the Sweet Adelines Region 31 Convention in May, and brought their contest set along in a state where the technical challenges were largely under control leaving us to focus on the artistry of their delivery. The two songs are very different in shape and feel, but we found ourselves working with both of them in terms of narrative.
Their ballad is essentially a declaration of love that elaborates on a single, central idea. This gives it a great sense of purpose, but can make it harder to find the variety and contrasts a performance needs amongst the unity.
It becomes much easier to find shape and narrative if you recast the song as a dialogue rather than a monologue. Having established the scenario - the moment in the journey of a relationship - that the quartet imagined this moment to be taking place in, we brought the imagined beloved into the room.
The song’s emotional structure then takes shape as a response to the beloved’s reaction to the declaration. It becomes a journey through a developing relationship rather than a set-piece presentation. The song moves from the vulnerability of not knowing how he will respond, to confidence as he appears to like what he hears, to increasing intimacy, finally to rapture.
And it’s not just the big-picture narrative that this approach clarifies, it also makes sense of the details. Phrase-boundaries become much more meaningful, both in the breath-points and the embellishments when they are performed as part of the turn-taking of conversation. Swipes, it turns out, tell you what’s on your beloved’s face.
Their up-tune by contrast is a classic barbershop number from the comedic vaudeville tradition. It has a lot of words in it and oodles of energy, and it can become something of a headlong dash from start to end. Again, we found clarity and contrasts in it by analysing the narrative structure, and specifically the patterns of set-up and punchline. The set-up is a form of misdirection; it pulls people into the story, and gets them engaged with the characters and narrative. The punchline then gives it a twist, the surprise releasing the narrative tension and triggering the laugh.
This structure has a number of corollaries for performance. First, it points up the main moments of emphasis that really need to stand out. This in turn allows you to relax the more narrative parts of the set-up. A more conversational mode allows you to draw the listener in more readily than when you are adding emphasis to every detail of the story; people feel less empathy when they feel you are trying too hard. Second, it clarifies where you need to avoid giving the game away too early (by anticipating the punchline) or treading on your laughs (by adding stuff after it lands). The net result for the singers is that the whole becomes not just more fun, but a lot easier to sing.
Another thing that emerged as we worked was that the barbershop aesthetic of authenticity, of sincere expression, was getting a bit in the way of the song. ‘From the heart’ isn’t necessarily the most useful mode to approach a song whose humour, like much comedy, is based on misfortune. If it is presented with an overall emotional tone of anger or heartbreak (either of which would be reasonable responses in real life to the situation it describes), you damp down considerably the audience’s response. People are kind and don’t like to laugh at someone who is demonstrably distressed, even if their predicament is genuinely funny. Approaching it as a song about social awkwardness/embarrassment gives the song’s persona scope to laugh at themselves to an extent, and thereby invite their empathetic listeners to join in.