Enigmatic Signature

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I spent a happy couple of days at the weekend working with Signature, LABBS chorus champions from 2006, and Enigma, a quartet from within their ranks who won the quartet contest the previous year. Something I found very interesting with both groups was being invited to work on music that was in a very early stage of the rehearsal process, and I think this is something that many groups would benefit from too.

Most ensembles seem to wait until they are very familiar with the music before inviting a coach to work on it. This has a number of advantages of course. It means that you’re not taking up coaching time dealing with note and rhythm issues (in theory anyway – it’s surprising how often note errors do get practised in!). And it means that the singers are spending less cognitive overhead in simply remembering how the music goes and so have some brain left to think about the issues that come up in coaching.

On the other hand, though, you run into the problems I talked about in my diatribe against the notion of ‘note-bashing’ last winter. The longer you have rehearsed something before getting coaching on it, the more entrenched are the interpretational, imaginative and vocal habits you bring to it, and the harder it is to adapt to the new ideas the coach brings. After all, the entire point of bringing in a coach is to change what you do – whether at a technical or an imaginative level – and it is much easier to move from relatively unformed to a clear vision of the performance than from well-ingrained to a new vision.

And, while I like to think the work we did on music that was already in their performing repertoire was effective and useful, it was on the new music that we made the biggest difference. At first I thought that was largely because of my strongly music-led approach – we made lots of decisions about tempo, rhythmic flavour, and overall trajectory of the songs, as well as details of dynamic and colour changes. But I think it would be true if I were either more voice-led or story-focused; it’s still a matter of establishing a relationship with the song that sets you off on a good footing so that you don’t have to re-programme yourself halfway through what should be the ‘polishing’ phase. (And actually, I am pretty story-focused – I just use it to make sense of the music and its vocal demands.)

One of the ways that both Signature and Enigma dealt with the cognitive overhead of holding music in the memory while manipulating their relationship with it was to use the sheet music freely as needed. Having music on the risers is something of a shibboleth among many barbershop groups – you’re not a proper chorus if you don’t hold all the music in memory. Singing from ‘the dots’ in rehearsal marks the song as unready, or the singer as new and not yet fully absorbed into the group.

Now, I’m all for performing from memory (and not just barbershop - I did Beethoven 9 from memory as a student and loved it), and therefore recognise the need for lots of memory work in rehearsal to prepare for performance. However, I’m coming to the view that asking people to relinquish the sheet music for the stages when you’re making decisions about how the piece should go is just putting unnecessary obstacles in the way. Even if you’re not a particularly fluent music reader, it’s much easier to navigate around the song when you’re rehearsing it in bits and pieces if you can see it in front of you.

So to anyone else who was thinking of inviting me to coach, don’t feel you have to wait until it’s nearly ready to perform before you ask for input – I may be more useful to you at an earlier stage.

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