Developing New Music with Signature

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Name that tune...Name that tune...

Saturday was the second of a series of visits to Signature Singers to work with them on a new arrangement they are preparing for LABBS Convention in October. Last time I saw them, they had only just wrapped themselves round the notes and words, so we were doing deep groundwork, building the vocal and musical foundations for the song to be built on.

Two months on, and things were, unsurprisingly, much more developed. We still had a little undergrowth clearing to do in places, especially coordinating parts at structural boundaries and tempo changes. But in general we were getting much more into the expressive detail.

Gesture is a well-documented rehearsal technique to help singers feel musical shape, for purposes of both accuracy and expression. (Ramona Wis, for instance, wrote a splendid PhD dissertation on this, using Lakoff and Johnsons’ theory of metaphor.) It has all kinds of benefits – helping the singers get inside the musical effects, helping them coordinate to each other, allowing the coach to identify who needs extra help to find their way into it.

On Saturday it also revealed a benefit I had not consciously articulated before. As anyone teaching choreography knows, you have to prepare a move before you execute it. Likewise with gesture – you need to get your hand and arm in the right place in time make the stroke, i.e. the meaningful bit, of the gesture. This means you have to get your brain engaged in good time in anticipation.

When you are using gesture to bring a moment that hadn’t been quite working into focus, having the brains prepared in good time to get the exact moment you are working on right is just what you need.

Since my last visit, Signature have, at my advice, been mostly rehearsing the song in small sections. This has paid significant dividends in terms of pitch retention, as it means that, if they do slip in rehearsal, it’s never long before they correct it, and thus they have been practising all sections of the song at the correct pitch. (One of the main reasons people sometimes struggle to maintain pitch is having established a muscle-memory with slippage.) I also note that they are much more fluent at starting in the middle than they used to be, which is a great boon when you have attention to details on your to-do list.

Another result of this approach, though, was that some singers expressed a need for some help in putting it all together in their heads – by definition if you have focused on small sections, you’ve not built up such a strong sense of the overall arc.

Accordingly we spent some time in the afternoon song-mapping. If we’d had a dry-wipe board or a flip chart, I’d have drawn it out for them. But as we didn’t, I had to improvise. Two small tables became Choruses 1 and 2, and four bottles lined up became the AABA form within the chorus (the third bottle had a drink with colour to show it had different melodic material from the three with water).

The same four bottles then got moved to Chorus 2, to indicate its parallel structure, but the first two shifted backwards to indicate the passages for bass and bari melody, and a cardigan laid between two of them to indicate the key change.

We then went and added the verse at the front with a chair, preceded by a handbag to indicate the introduction. (From which you will infer it’s not one of those big ringy, intros, but something more open and intriguing.) Three more chairs, of a different type from the verse but the same type as each other filled in the link between verse and Chorus 1, the Bridge between Chorus 1 & 2 (with added knitwear to log the presence of another key change), and the tag. A back-to-front chair between Chorus 2 and Tag with a bottle on it represented a Stomp passage with material derived from the A section of the chorus.

It was a very fun way to do musical analysis, and it made me glad to be lacking more traditional teaching aids. It gave us a really useful framework for discussing things like the arranging process and how to plan the staging. And as we left the furniture there for the rest of the afternoon (people not unreasonably reclaimed their drinks, bags and clothing), we had a reference tool to locate ourselves in the song if people got muddled up between sections with similar material.

And now you know a bit more about the arrangement Signature will be premiering in October. You don’t yet know what the story is about, but you do at least know the form. And I’ll also tell you that you’re really going to enjoy the way Signature sing the bit where the scarf is.

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