Fascinating Lyrics, and Another Widget

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Thursday took me back for a second visit to Fascinating Rhythm in South Gloucestershire, this time to focus on the second of their new contest pieces they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. They had sung through it to me the week before, which meant I could arrive prepared with a sense of the ways I could be most immediately helpful. The back-to-back visits also allowed us to revisit the work we had done the week before and make sure that was getting embedded nicely (which it was).

Both the songs the chorus is currently working on have specific musical challenges defined by the primary area of interest in the material.* Last week it was rhythm, this week lyrics. I was reflecting on this on the way home, and wondering if it is always going to be the case that the thing that makes a song distinctive and special is also the element that makes the most pressing technical demands on the performers.

I suspect it is likely to be a pretty safe generalisation, for two reasons. First, a musical element will always manifest in a less run-of-the-mill kind of way in a song that makes it the featured element. So, your common-or-garden rhythmic skills will keep you going through a lot music, but a song that leads with rhythm as its defining flavour will use more sophisticated or distinctive rhythmic content to set it apart. Second, even if the song uses its featured element in perfectly standard ways, when it carries the weight of the musical narrative, it delivery needs to be stronger than when it is just part of the mix.

Lyric as a featured element is surprisingly challenging for barbershoppers. As a musical culture that is very committed to emotional message and story-telling, you’d think delivery of lyric would come easily, but the fact is that so much of the repertoire is well-known material, there is actually very little pressure on the singers’ capacity to project a lyric comprehensibly. When your audiences already know what you’re singing about, you can tell a story with understated consonants and it will still get through.

When you are singing a song that is rather less well known, you need to raise your game in order to communicate. This would be true if the featured musical element were harmony or melody - we still want to know what’s going on in the story - but when it is the wit and wordplay in the lyrics that make the song special, you need to be sure you really sculpt the word sounds, really chisel them into the melodic line or you throw away the thing that will most delight your listeners.

This is in essence a technical challenge: articulating consonants without breaking up the legato line. With a chorus with the vocal skills of Fascinating Rhythm, there’s not a lot of danger of chopping the line up (they have a well-honed legato), but getting consonants (particularly end consonants) energised and crisp as a matter of routine is going to take some practice. They are currently at the ‘can do if reminded’ stage, so a useful task during their ongoing preparation is going to be to find multiple practice tactics to work on this. We used a couple on Thursday, but they’re going to need some more.

The last thing we did during the session was build another rehearsal widget, this one for maintaining the specific body-language/characterisation of a song. Having established the physical persona the song required, we tasked half the chorus with maintaining that all the time. We tasked the other half with mirroring their director’s body language. And the director was tasked with keeping both halves of the chorus matched.

It worked like a dream! One of the biggest challenges for any rehearsal or caoching process is embedding changes. You can get people to do something, but getting them to keep doing it for long enough for it to become second-nature is much harder. Structures like this that build monitoring, feedback and reinforcement into the process of making music in real time, rather than having to stop and re-instruct, are really useful.

* What the barbershop world used to call theme, but tend not to so much now as the usage confused too many people. Oh, and I’m aware I’m being a bit cryptic by talking about the characteristics of the songs without saying what they are, but with contest premieres I feel it is the performers’ prerogative to decide when and how to announce their song choices to the world.

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