Spring Fest 2017

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4 of the 5 tutors for the day4 of the 5 tutors for the day

Last Sunday saw my third consecutive year as a tutor for the A Cappella Spring Fest at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot. The day took a similar shape to the previous years, with a plenary warm-up followed by themed classes and workshops in the morning, then afternoon rehearsals in a variety of a cappella genres, culminating in performances where we all shared our efforts.

I was leading the Contemporary A Cappella stream again this year, but with the added amenity of vocal percussion. Andy Frost from the Magnets ran two general workshops on beatboxing in the morning, and then during the afternoon coached a small group to add a vocal percussion part to Ben Bram’s arrangement of ‘Uptown Funk’.

It is a moderately challenging arrangement – though we had cut it down somewhat, given the short rehearsal time available – but participants took it well in their stride. It helps that the intricate parts that need rather more attention to get right come back at several points in the arrangement, so you feel it is worth investing the time in them, as you’ll get plenty of use out of that work. The passages aren’t expensive on a cost-per-sing basis, so to speak.

And of course, when you can do them, you feel like you rule the world. There was a joie de vivre in the performance that you can only attain when you’re feeling good about yourself. The rehearsal process, that is, gives you the opportunity to make the music sound better in two dimensions. As you hone the details to bring clarity, colour and shape to the music, you also bring confidence and pleasure to the voices. Every mistake or uncertainty fixed, every balance adjusted, every expressive moment picked out is a means to build self-belief, which in turn is musically audible in the vocal tone.

The first rehearsal session, in which I worked only with the singers, was all about unpicking the details. With so little time, you have to be intensely tactical, and focus your efforts where you are going to get most bang for your rehearsal buck. There was one bass gesture that we simply cut because it was expensive – only happened once and would take some time to coordinate. I did check that it wasn’t their favourite bit, first, though. I wouldn’t cut a bit someone was looking forward to.

In the second session, the vocal percussionists joined us again, and it was interesting to see how the act of putting it all together lifted everyone. We were rehearsing in longer musical spans now, integrating the detail into larger structures, and in the normal run of things, this would be the point where you’d be guarding against the risk of falling into autopilot. But the novelty value of bring singers and beatboxers together took us sailing right over that danger zone without looking down.

If the singers were feeling empowered by their achievements so far, they only had to look at the vocal percussionists’ faces to see how lit up they were with the new skills Andy had given them. A buzz like that is contagious.

The last step of challenge we took, just before the end of our second rehearsal session, was to commit to performing from memory. I had said at the start that it would be good if we could, but that I wasn’t going to force anyone to put their music down if it was going to spoil their afternoon. Mind you, given the nature of the page turns (complicated further by cuts), it would likely end up easier to manage off the page.

By our last complete run-through, a good many people had abandoned their music, so I suggested we give it a try without the dots, just to see. At this stage, even those people clinging to the paper for security usually know a lot more than they give themselves credit for.

And when the decision came to perform from memory too, a lot of the encouragement came from our percussion section who were not themselves working from written parts and therefore in a much better position to observe the difference that singing from memory made to the overall performance.

As with preparations for any musical performance, the achievements of Sunday were many. Some were private (such as the people who had really struggled with their parts, but ended up making a great contribution to the performance), some were fleeting (the clarity of the tenors on the only B flat in the piece), and some were very obvious (provoking the audience into a standing ovation).

For the record, I’d like to note my pleasure at achieving an absolutely secure tonal centre all afternoon. From our very first run-through, it remained unwavering.

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