Raising the Game with Amersham A Cappella

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One of the many things I love about my life is the opportunity to both arrange for and coach skilled and up-for-it ensembles. I mentioned my recent arrangement for Amersham A Cappella that they performed at BABS Convention recently when I was reflecting on the quality of lit-up-ness. When I went down to see them on Tuesday to work with them on another new chart, this one destined for the European Convention in October, that excitement was evident again.

(I am sure I have mentioned before how excited I am about the range of new arrangements LABBS choruses will be showcasing to our European visitors this autumn. As well as the four of mine due for premiere, I know of one by Debi Cox and two by Heather Lane due to be unveiled – though all I know about the last two is that they exist. It’s going to be a long contest, but it’s not going to be dull!)

Anyway, Amersham are really rocking it at the moment on the matter of song choice. As an arranger, I know how craft both individual lines and overall musical structures that give singers opportunities to engage expressively with the song, but the more apt the choice of song for the group and occasion, the more they have to express. I’m sure that all readers who are going to the European Convention had Amersham on their ‘must see’ list anyway, but they’re on course to really make you feel the love.

I chose today’s title, though, as I wanted to talk about one specific thing we worked on, and what it says about the chorus culture. Ever since I wrote my article On Singing the Post to clarify my thoughts in the wake of a bunch of performances I’d been listening to at a convention, I have consciously tested that any post I write can be sung in one breath.

Not just so that the chart could be sung by a quartet even if it were originally arranged for a chorus, but to provide the opportunity for excitement in performance by having every singer commit to it.

The lead line towards the end of Amersham’s new contest tune increasingly features the ‘look at my amazing voice’ opportunities of long notes as it approaches its finish. A shortish long note (but longer than you were expecting), followed by a ‘hey, let’s aniticipate the big finish’ long note, then the final few notes of melody run straight into a tonic post for the tag.

The bit of game-raising we did was to clarify exactly where the final breath of the piece was, and to forbid any sneaking in extras to take you to the end of the tag. The first time we did it, there were three types of people. Those who made it through, those who ran out of breath and thus of voice, and those who cheated.

It was the second lot who received the congratulations for doing exactly the right thing. Because only by allowing yourself to fail in rehearsal can you develop the capacity to join those who managed to hold right to the end. If you sneak in a breath, you cheat yourself of the growth opportunity to get better at pacing both body and mind to the song’s full expressive arc.

There were several subsidiary points to unpack here. One was that we were talking about this four months before the song’s premiere. There was plenty of time to work on this and nail it. Another was that the final breath point was shared by all four parts, and the harmony parts could really help by committing to the kind of deep-seated breath the leads would need. This, of course, can only help the expressive unity of the ensemble.

We also discussed how, if you cheat, you are effectively lying to your MD about what she can do in shaping the ending. There are things that Helen had been pulling out quite a lot, but which she was prepared to push through faster for the sake of her leads’ lungs. As they develop their stamina, she may want to start milking those moments a bit more again, but she needs accurate information from the sound of the section’s voices about what will be feasible and effective.

And the big discovery from the experience of doing this is how it permits a whole new level of expressive continuity. If you know, at the back of your mind, that you could take a breath at any point, you’ve always got a corner of your psyche in the hands of the Manager rather than the Communicator. Certainly, from a listener’s perspective, it’s a much more compelling experience, and that’s before they can even really do it yet.

I spend a lot of my life saying, ‘The things you can nearly but not quite do are exactly the right things to be working on,’ and ‘Mistakes are part of the process’. This particular example of these principles pointed up how, inherent in this, is the mindset that you have to let yourself fail en route if you are to succeed in the end. It is a testament to the chorus culture that they embraced that process with a real sense of purpose.

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