Assessing Vocal Close-Harmony

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This coming semester I will be teaching a class on arranging and performing vocal close harmony. The students are all specialist performers or composers in the 3rd year of a 4-year BMus degree, but most will have had little or no contact with close-harmony styles beforehand. So it’s a real challenge to take a bunch of intelligent musicians and see how far they can get in an unfamiliar style in just eleven weeks of teaching. It’s a small class this year, which will make it possible to give students more individual attention, so I’m looking forward to it even more than usual.

I’ve been over-hauling the course materials in anticipation, and thought I’d share the marking guidelines I’ll be using to assess them.

There are two parts to the assignment: each student produces an arrangement, and also submits a recording of a quartet (of which they must be a member) performing it. The rationale for this structure is (a) that the arranging techniques only really make sense in the context of the performing style and (b) if you yourself have to sing the chart with your friends, it keeps you honest as an arranger.

Anyway, I’ll be assessing the two parts as follows:

Arrange a song for a cappella quartet using established conventions of close-harmony texture, voicings and notation (50%)

  • Below 30%
    The arrangement shows little grasp of the style and conventions specified in the assignment rubric.
  • 30-39%
    There is some evidence of an understanding of the genre, but there are too many technical glitches for the arrangement to work in performance.
  • 40-49%
    The arrangement shows a sufficient grasp of the conventions of the genre to be usefully performable. The parts will be in the right roles in the texture, and the primary harmonies will be workable if not ideal. There may be problems with the passing harmonies, and there are a significant number of incomplete chords/unnecessary doublings. The voicings and voice-leading produce recognisable music, but make life difficult for the singers.
  • 50-59%
    A competent handling of the musical materials produces a reasonably singable arrangement in which the harmonic choices make sense of the song. It is somewhat under-embellished, and there are a number of incomplete chords/unnecessary doublings.
  • 60-69%
    A confident handling of the musical materials produces an arrangement in which harmonic and embellishment choices work to characterise the song. There are some infelicities of voicing or voice-leading, but technical errors are relatively rare.
  • 70-79%
    There are few if any technical distractions and the embellishment strategy produces a satisfying shape/trajectory to the whole song. Voicing and voice-leading are handled so as to make life easier for the singers.
  • Above 80%
    The arrangement is not only technically assured and well-shaped musically, but is starting to use elements such as tessitura, voicing and harmonic charge for more sophisticated artistic purposes.

Perform this song in quartet using stylistically-appropriate ensemble techniques and delivery (50%)

  • Below 30%
    The performance is too inaccurate and/or poorly executed for the content of the arrangement to be discernible.
  • 30-39%
    Some sense of the song and its arrangement comes through the performance, but significant inaccuracies and/or ensemble problems interfere.
  • 40-49%
    The performance is sufficiently accurate that it would be possible to reconstruct the arrangement from it by ear/transcription.
  • 50-59%
    The performance is generally accurate and reasonably synchronised and well-tuned, with some attempt to characterise the song. There are as yet some problems with balance and the voices are not sufficiently matched to produce anything more than intermittent lock and ring.
  • 60-69%
    A performance that shows a clear sense of style and character. Balance, tuning and vocal matching are all sufficiently under control to produce sense of unit sound on sustained chords, if not in faster moving passages.
  • 70-79%
    An assured and well-characterised delivery in which technical distractions rarely interfere with the communication of the musical content.
  • Above 80%
    A very well-executed performance with a sense of real flair. The ensemble has a resonant and well-balanced unit sound that can exploit the harmonic flavours presented in the arrangement.

(Note: as in most UK degree programmes, the pass mark is 40%, and 70% marks the first-class boundary. So, our marking schemes differentiate between near-miss and hopeless fails at the bottom, and between very good and outstanding work at the top, as well as the intermediate bands.)

These criteria resonate with the terms I used here to define a good close-harmony arrangement (though they mostly focus on the competent and elegant levels – aiming for sophisticated in 11 one-hour workshops is not entirely realistic!).

What struck me as I worked through these yesterday was how each element draws attention away from itself as it improves in quality. At the bottom end, the pass mark is defined by a level of competence that makes the connection between arrangement and performance possible: the arrangement is usefully singable, and the performance is accurate enough that you can reverse-engineer the arrangement from it. As the arrangement improves, it defers on the one hand to singers – the lines and voicings become increasingly singable – and on the other hand to the material it arranges – it brings out the shape and character of the song. As the performance improves, the character of the song and the details of the arrangement become more apparent than the act of singing. It’s in the middling levels, where there is some grasp of the idiom but as yet incomplete control, that you get all the analytical technical language.

To an extent, then, I have defined the success criteria in terms of what Lydia Goehr characterises as the aesthetic of the ‘perfect performance of music’ – i.e. that the role of the performer is to make themselves transparent so that the music itself shines through. On the other hand, this aesthetic doesn’t privilege the written text in quite the way in this context that it has in western classical music of the last 200 years, because the text itself is judged by the parallel criterion: does it get out of the way and let the performers shine? Certainly this is what I aim for myself as an arranger: I feel I have succeeded if listeners say either, ‘what fabulous performers!’ or ‘I love that song!’ Connoisseurs may take an interest in the chart itself, but my job as an arranger is to make other people look good – well, to help them harmonise, indeed.

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