A Champion Day

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I spent Saturday with my friends at Bristol A Cappella, working with them on music they will be performing as outgoing Mixed Chorus Champions at BABS Convention in May. What with their mic-warming duties, swan-song set and show spot, there’s a good deal more music to prepare for the event than you ever have to bring as a competitor, so we had a busy time. Fortunately, the groups who are faced with this packed schedule are the ones who have demonstrated skills that will win a contest so are up for the extra challenge.

Indeed, one of the things I noticed about the chorus, compared with a few years ago is how much more quickly they pick things up now, which allows us to get through a lot. Once we have established a principle in one place, and practised it a few times to give everyone the chance to feel in control of it, one can hear them continuing to apply the idea for the rest of the song, and then in subsequent pieces we work on. I sometimes had to point out the opportunities to apply things, but once they were drawn to their attention, they were right on the case.

One of the songs we worked on was one they competed with a few years ago, and I had worked with them on it then, but not heard them sing it since. This really helped me measure the distance they have travelled in the interim. The sense of shape and arc was convincing and confidently handled, giving us space to delve into other artistic questions.

After using duetting to deepen everyone’s insight into the music, we asked their director Iain to start them off, then just sit and listen. The first phrase was sung expressively somewhat of ‘After you’, ‘No, after you,’, but in the link to the second phrase, everyone stepped up together to take ownership of the music, and started producing a wider expressive range than they had been giving when directed. Hence, this exercise not only revealed the places where the chorus really needs Iain’s support, but also where he can usefully give them more space. It turns out that sometimes when he gives more, the singers respond by giving less.

It’s really hard, as a director, to stop doing things, but this radical stopping-doing frees you up to remove habitual gestures, and in the process give your singers more expressive space to operate. It also means that when Iain did give gestural direction, it was much more effective, because it was much more visually salient.

This became useful in our next task, which was developing the interest in the phrase boundaries. You can learn not to breathe in places where the intention is to join the phrases together, but you need also to stay interested in the music throughout – because there is a natural boundary point it is all too easy to mentally check out a little, which immediately affects the tone. But thinking in terms, not of ‘not breathing’, but of ‘finding interesting ways to join together’, you get something positive to do and an opportunity to exercise expressive purpose. And with Iain doing much less within the phrases, he could focus everyone’s attention on these moments with great clarity.

I probably had the most fun with a song I hadn’t worked with before, but is very much the bread-and-butter of Bristol A Cappella’s stylistic world, being in six parts and having lots of rhythmically intricate textures to untangle. It also moved through a variety of stylistic worlds, aiming to invoke atmospheric church music, hard rock, and a string quartet in different phases of its narrative. I love the process of practical analysis, teasing apart the textures and working out what they need.

I think the thing I find so rewarding about it is the way it ping-pongs between the musical-imaginative and the vocal-technical. (N.B. the first draft of that sentence used the word ‘dialectic’ instead of ‘ping-pong’; I like my second choice all the more for knowing what the first choice was.)

One end of the equation is finding holistic modes of understanding to evoke musical worlds, with all their sonic and cultural associations, and the other is working out the nitty-gritty of how you need to use your tongue, lips, resonators, and breath to recreate those worlds. Technical command is thus always framed as a means to an artistic end, which in turn makes it easier to remember the detail of technique because you know its purpose.

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