Gesturing with the A Cappella Ladies

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InnigInnigWhen we planned our trip to Germany, the plan was to start in Munich and then travel up through the country by train to eventually make our way to Brussels for the Eurostar back to England. We were just dithering about which of the many possible routes we could take to do this when the A Cappella Ladies helped us into a decision by inviting me to coach them on the Wednesday after the Barbershop Musikfestival.

Their director since November is Stefanie Schmidt, who was one of the first friends I made at my first BinG! Harmony College back in 2015. I had worked with her in quartet, and it was a delight to work with her now in her capacity as a director.

It turned out to be a very gestural evening. It is perfectly normal for me to get chorus singers physically involved in musical shape during a coaching session; it is so not very often though that this becomes a theme for all of the music we work with. It was partly a function of the kinds of musical problems we were solving, though on reflection I suspect I may have been choosing visual/kinaesthetic methods to address them as a way to avoid taking up too much of their cognitive effort in working in their second language.

All the German barbershoppers I have worked with have had impressively good English, but when people are going to have to work that bit harder to process verbal input, it really makes you focus on what the singers are doing rather than what you are saying.

One function of enrolling chorus members in gesture is to allow the director to become physically calmer as she no longer holds all the responsibility for pulse. This in turn makes her own gestures more precise and thus easier for the singers to coordinate to, allowing everyone a cleaner and more lively rhythm. The bonus is the way it gives space for everyone to shape their lines more when the pulse is omnipresent but not dominating.

Another function is the way it allows individuals within the chorus to access the support they need without singling them out in a way that will distract them from the task in hand. Inviting the chorus to walk around clicking in a song’s groove helps them all align with each other’s understanding of the rhythmic flavour, and for the director and/or coach to go and groove along with anyone who temporarily falls out of the rhythm to help them back in. It activates the social bonds that already exist within the chorus to musical ends.

The most sophisticated and rewarding example, though, was using gesture as a method of musical analysis. Stef had mentioned at the BMF that she would like to explore how to get yet more out of the music of their contest ballad, and since hearing it on Saturday I had been reflecting on how to bring expressive shapes that were there implicitly more into relief.

We started by feeling the relationship between meter and dance. Stef had conceived of the song as a waltz from the get-go, and I had a hunch that a slightly faster waltz with more of a lift on beats 2 & 3 would help the flow of melody and lyric by taking the weight out of the unaccented syllables.

After dancing our way through the verse, the singes were not yet fully convinced: feeling the song differently changed how they understood its story, and they had been committed to a particular type of emotional engagement with the song. I was utterly delighted by the perceptiveness of this feedback, and it gave us space to experience the next stage of development as provisional. Have a play with it for the evening, and then chorus and director can decide how they use the ideas it generates in the future.

For it was the next stage I was particularly interested in. Speeding up the tempo allows a waltz to be directed as one in a bar rather than three – and this in turn gives you the chance to start playing with hypermeter, i.e. how bars are grouped into phrases just as beats are grouped into bars.

Next we involved the whole chorus in exploring the expressive meanings of down-beat versus upbeat (assertion vs anticipation), and in-beat versus out-beat (innig* vs generosity). We did this double-handed as this makes the closure and opening of body language of the in- and out-beats much more readily perceptible. We next strung these into the down-in-out-up sequence of the traditional 4-pattern.

We were then ready to combine this with the song, with each directional gesture corresponding with one bar of 3/4. What this revealed was that the harmonic shape of the song worked in the same kind of expressive shape as the beat pattern. In the progression of I – dim 7 – II minor – V7 for instance, I is assertive compared to the anticipatory V7, whilst the more troubled dim 7 opens out into a relatively looser, more generous II minor. Indeed, the squeezing-in of beat 2 naturally brings out the higher harmonic charge of the chromatic chord.

All this was fun and enlightening, but it also gave us a wonderful pay-off in fixing a localised moment in which the chorus were not always managing to fulfil their intentions. At the end of one phrase is a V7 chord, held for two bars without embellishment. Musically, it needs to be sustained with energy through both bars, but vocally this can feel like hard work.

However, if you experience this chord as consisting of generosity followed by anticipation, the second half of it suddenly lifts off and brings meaning to the phrase. The gestural shape makes the vocal task easy.

I’ve written about this using lots of technical terms because I know there are harmony nerds who take pleasure in this. The point of it as an exercise in practice, though, is to appeal to the intuitive understanding of harmonic shape that people experience whether or not they know the technical terms.

* When I’m doing this with English-speaking groups, I use the word ‘introverted’, as I can’t find an English word that has quite the same flavour as the German ‘innig’. One of the nice things about working with German groups is being able to use the word that describes my musical understanding more accurately. (My German is pretty much useless for conversational purposes, but my education did give me some practical grasp of musical-expressive terms.)

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