Zooming over to Route Sixteen

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I didn't take a screenshot because I didn't want to show their costumes before their big reveal at Convention: pic from their website insteadI didn't take a screenshot because I didn't want to show their costumes before their big reveal at Convention: pic from their website insteadThere are many things that you can’t achieve on Zoom, but there are also some key things that you can, such as coaching people in a different country for a couple of hours. Much as I love the city of Dordrecht from my visit there a few years ago, it’s not really a viable trip to make just for an evening!

I spent Thursday evening working with Route Sixteen, who will soon be defending their gold medal from 2019 in Holland Harmony’s national barbershop convention. They are finally getting the chance to share the concept package they had originally planned for 2021, and, whilst it has been quite hard to pace how to keep it alive through the covid era, it will be wonderful for them finally to share it.

With a concept package, intelligibility of the lyrics are central to success of the performance in a way that they aren’t so much when performing songs that are well-known and/or unsurprising in content for their genre. Route Sixteen were fully aware of this, and in fact a theme emerged over the evening of not making the lyrics do all the heavy lifting, but allowing other musical elements to help carry the musical narrative.

We normally think of ‘balance’ as pertaining to the relative strength or loudness of the different parts. But we were dealing here with a more abstract kind of balance, in which the focus on lyrics had made them too ‘loud’ relative to other aspects of the music. You could have dealt with this at a technical level of reducing the muscular engagement in the articulation of consonants, but sometimes just thinking about the music differently will produce those kinds of adjustments intuitively without taking everyone’s attention away from their expressive intentions.

The first element we gave attention to was rhythm, getting the groove established in the bodies from the get-go, so it could carry and shape the lyrics, rather than get overwhelmed by them. We then turned our attention to embellishments, and getting them to add lift and sparkle (‘this is where the music is wearing earrings’ was the metaphor that emerged in the moment). Both of these elements came into focus very readily, indicating that the musical understanding was all in place, it just needing awareness adjusting to get them playing their part in the expressive flow.

As we moved into the second song in their medley, we turned our attention more to melody, and the sense of flow and direction it can give the music. Two further ways to adjust the thinking were to sing sentences rather than words, and then to imagine singing to people who didn’t understand the words, but could feel the music.

We escalated the latter thought in due course by having everyone bubble a passage. This not only removed the lyrics as medium of communication, but gave us some very useful information about how they were handling both rhythmic and melodic flow. We worked on keeping the bubble even, rather than creating accents with extra bursts of air: the rhythm is there in the bodies and in the pacing, you don’t need also to try and do it with the vocal mechanism.

We also did some work on details, which is much harder in online coaching than in face-to-face work than the big-picture, holistic/conceptual work. You don’t readily get that sense of sharing the same ‘house of being’ that underpins both the detailed diagnostic work of close-up listening and watching and the process of finding the best way to demonstrate something mediates between what the music wants and how the singers currently are. Still, we didn’t let that stop us when the nitty-gritty wanted some TLC.

And it turns out that you can still hear what’s going on inside people’s heads through their voices even through the obstacles of the medium. There’s a twiddly bit (technical term) that was sounding rather scrambled, and as we stripped it back to its essentials it became increasingly clear that the singers were rushing through it because they were worried about not being able to sing it fast enough. We slowed the breath down in preparation for it, and gave them permission to take the time to be wonderful, and they revealed the twiddle in all its expressive glory.

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