More Musicking in Yorkshire

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Wednesday night took me back to Yorkshire for my second evening of music-making with Sally McLean in a month, this time with the chorus she is featured working with in my choral conducting book, The White Rosettes. And, like my last visit, the task was to work on a new arrangement in its early stages of development.

So, once again it’s all going to be a bit cryptic, as I’m not going to tell you what the song is before they are ready for the big reveal. I realise that this makes the reading experience a bit abstract, but it will all be worth it when you hear the contest premiere in October as they sing to defend their LABBS and European Championship titles.

A theme throughout the evening was the different ways a piece of music can be challenging. There are several dimensions in which I had deliberately chosen not to stretch the chorus in this arrangement. Apart from a somewhat rangy melody (the composer’s choice, that one), the vocal parts stay well within the compass the chorus are used to. The texture isn’t unduly complex. The chord choices are in the main the obvious ones suggested by the melody – indeed, quite often the harmony is less complex than the original. And the lines have had received a lot of work on making them intuitively singable.

You may wonder why I took such pains to keep it simple when arranging for a chorus of the White Rosettes’ prowess. But the song itself is so rich, so full of musical content, that it was paramount for both arranger and chorus to get the heck out of the way to let it all through. (This is where the abstraction gets irritating for you, I know. I’m sorry, but you’ll enjoy coming back to these comments once you’ve heard it.)

The song’s own challenges are to an extent those of technique. The melody is somewhat rangy, as noted above, though not excessively so. The song is long, so demands a good degree of vocal stamina. And there are a lot of words, so good articulation is vital.

But even these specifically technical challenges are not only technical, they are also already artistic. The stamina needed is not just about physical control, but about mental focus and imaginative breadth. The longer you have to stay in character, and the longer and more emotionally varied the narrative that character is involved with, the deeper the characterisation needs to be. The intricacy of the lyrics challenges not just the lips, tongue and teeth that articulate them, but the minds that communicate them. They are both rich in imagery and reference, and brimming with poetic devices: short, medium, and long-term rhyme schemes, alliteration, assonance.

A number of recurrent themes emerged as we addressed these challenges. For clarity of enunciation we focused in on the little words - the, of, to – and the rhythmically de-emphasised syllables in pick-ups. It is these that are inherently lighter in melodic weight, but therefore need extra attention for their language content to be discernible. Without them, the vivid, rhythmically-emphasised words don’t make sense.

We also homed in on the main punchlines – the big moments of arrival both musically and narratively – and set them up as major focal points within the overall arc of the form. This involved removing weight – both vocal and emotional - from the set-ups: ‘Keep your powder dry here’ was a useful instruction in several places, particularly in the earlier parts of a section. Then, when we got to the bits we had been saving up for, we focused on the moment of preparation before their delivery.

This used the idea of the thought-point – the notion that the breath is not there to fill the lungs for the phrase that follows, but to have the idea it expresses – to strategic effect. There are a number of really clever pay-off moments in this song, and whilst you don’t want to give the game away too early, the audience needs to know they’re coming and be ready for them. We empathised with how the song-writer must have felt when he came up with something so virtuosically witty, and inhaled that unholy glee to deliver the line.

Underlying both these challenges – clarity of lyrical detail, and structure of overall narrative – was the challenge of newness. The song is not a barbershop standard; it’s not even a jazz standard. It is moderately well known, but possibly one of the less famous works of an established songwriter. Quite a lot of the chorus hadn’t known it previously, and quite a few of the audience won’t know it either.

There is a simple and obvious way in which this requires extra care in enunciation: if you don’t achieve this, the audience won’t understand what’s going on. And when, as in this case, so much of the specific interest of the song is carried by extraordinarily well-written words, you really don’t want anyone to miss a thing.

But understanding the words isn’t a matter of simple cognition – of hearing what they are – it’s also a matter of story and emotional shape – of grasping what they imply. This is why pointing up the shape of the form is so important – when you are awash with scintillating detail, you really need to understand where the key moments in the story lie.

And thinking about the emotional experience of the audience in turn drew attention to how this changes when you’re singing music they haven’t heard before. The White Rosettes have built their astonishing track record on tried-and-tested music, both in terms of song and arrangement. They are quite often the first group to bring an arrangement to the LABBS stage, to be sure, but they have usually been working within a framework of recognisability.

Hearing an extremely skilled ensemble sing music that you recognise lifts you – as you sing along in your heart, it brings out the best musician in you. When it’s a group you have heard many times before, whose style and sound you love, especially when they are performing at the event that forms the emotional focal point of your singing year, this sense of identification is amplified.

So, when the Rosettes bring their first contest premiere to the stage in the autumn, not only will they be challenging themselves with all the inherent artistic demands built into the song, but they will also be challenging their audience. The challenge for the singers is not just to communicate complex content the audience weren’t expecting, but to transcend the audience’s surprise at being asked to listen differently from hitherto.

They are going to have *such* fun doing this.

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