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Same people, different orderSame people, different order

Normally, you wouldn’t visit a chorus 90 miles away for any hour at a time in consecutive weeks. When the travel involved is just going upstairs to your office rather than an hour and half each way down the M5, this becomes a more sensible proposition. Hence I found myself hanging out with my friends at Fascinating Rhythm for the second Thursday on the trot.

Having spent my last visit in presentation mode, explaining a number of musical concepts and their salience to the expressive world of the new arrangement they are working on, it was time to start exploring how this played out in practical terms. Hence we spent most of the time in duetting-coaching mode: each of the section leaders sang their part with the mic on for the others to duet with, I worked with them to develop their performance, then everyone had another go to apply that work themselves.

One of the things we have talked about on previous, normal, coaching visits, when everyone was singing together, is that artistic shift from singing your own part, to singing the whole musical texture. What everyone else is doing needs to shape how you approach what you are doing.

On the face of it, working on single lines might seem a step backwards in this regard, but in practice it became a great vehicle for exploring the implications of each part for the others. This is partly to do with what I was choosing to focus on. Hear this leap in the bass, hear that colour note in the tenor, hear how this long note develops in the lead: they ask you to do this in response. The chorus as a whole now has a significantly enhanced awareness of the difference between perky and dirty notes in the baritone line (chromatic notes respectively raised or lowered, in case you were wondering).

The structure of the activity also helped, as although we only heard one person singing on mic at any time, every chorus member spent three times as much time duetting with other parts than singing along with their own. And experienced three times much coaching on those other parts too. The putting-together of the coaching suggestions for the other parts with what they were doing with their own had to happen in their own heads and voices, so we don’t yet know what people have done with what they had observed of course. But we got some hints in the way each successive section leader was audibly using some of the ideas previous ones had worked on.

I found it really interesting to focus on the music from the perspective of each line’s expressive shape, not least because this is something I spend a lot of time thinking about as an arranger. The harmony parts are never merely about clothing the song’s melody in attractive chords, they have to have some kind of narrative, melodic quality of their own for the singers to have something to tell their story with. I often feel that this quality is a happy little secret between me and the singers, as, by the nature of the genre, it’s only ever the actual tune whose shape gets noticed.

And this is as it should be. The audience should be experiencing the arrangement as a gestalt, not noticing the shape of the baritone line. In fact, if I’ve done my job right, they won’t be noticing the arrangement at all, they’ll just be captivated by the song. Nonetheless, given that circumstances had unexpectedly brought our attention onto the individual lines as part of the process, I was grateful to my past self for caring about this.

While we were exploring the baritone line, I had a sudden flashback to an earlier version of that passage, where the overall gestures took the same kind of trajectory, but a sing-through told me I needed to give the singers more fun. It was lovely to be reassured that I had indeed fixed that shortcoming, and that the bari section leader appreciated the fun to be had. It’s a niche way to make friends, but it works for me.

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