A Cappella Spring Fest 2016

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Most Sundays in the centre of Didcot are possibly not that exciting, but every March for the last 6 years, there has been an event worth travelling to. And this year’s A Cappella Spring Fest saw people come from as far afield as the Isle of Wight and Selby to participate in a day’s celebration of unaccompanied song in the Cornerstone Arts Centre. This was my second year as a tutor, and, like last year, I was leading the Contemporary A Cappella stream.

The format of the day was similar to last year’s, though the team tweaks marginally from year to year in response to feedback and experience. This time the ‘Fest Flash’ song - a song to be flashmobbed out in the shopping centre where Cornerstone is situated over lunchtime - took a much more central role for all participants. As before a core of singers who had opted to work on it during the morning formed the nucleus of the performance, but this time all other participants had enough work on it scheduled in also to join in.

And the juxtaposition of hearing the full 120-voice cohort singing together with the various performances of the different streams made me notice some interesting things about choral sound and genre. You see, when we all sang together, it felt like a coherent, integrated group; the combined voices made sonic sense. But when we performed in all our different sub-sets of the whole, there were very distinct differences in the vocal timbres.

Now, you would expect Soul to sound different from a madrigal, and a Charles Wood psalm setting to sound different from contemporary a cappella. Each works within a distinct tradition of vocal production and approach to ensemble. But you normally encounter these contrasts through listening to different choirs who have established relationships with these traditions, rather than hearing them emerge during the course of an afternoon and then disappear again as all voices join together again for a final sing-through of the Fest Flash song.

So, this raises the question as to what extent this was driven by people self-selecting repertoire to fit with their preferred or familiar ways of using their voices, and to what extent did emerge from the ways the different directors rehearsed the pieces? There was certainly a trained soprano sound evident in the Charles Wood piece that wasn’t there in the contemporary a cappella group, which might argue for the self-selection aspect. But then again, I have a soprano voice that was trained in that tradition in my youth, but I would only choose to use it in that way for repertories for which it was suited.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I periodically harrangue choral directors on the need to know and be able to demonstrate all the parts in music they direct. Sunday’s experience gave me a vivid illustration of why this advice is useful. During the course of the 90 minutes or so of rehearsal we had in the stream, I field maybe 8 or 10 questions about details of specific parts that singers wanted help with. They were all very specific - finding a note, placing an entry - and without fail they were all bits that I had stumbled on and had had to go back and check as I sang through the parts in my preparation. (There were also two or three places where I had prepared tactics to help people if they needed it but which in fact went perfectly smoothly first time!)

The usefulness of the time taken in prep has two dimensions here. There was the fact that, when asked for help, I could demonstrate fluently and confidents because I had practised those bits, and there was the fact that - having needed to do that practise myself - I had a specific and detailed empathy for what the challenge they were dealing with was, and how to overcome it. But it was a lovely object lesson for a director: the bits we find trickiest on first sight are precisely the bits that we are going to need to sing in rehearsal!

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