Building the Musical Toolkit with the Belles

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bellesjul19I spent last Saturday with my friends at the Belles of Three Spires. On the face of it, we were working on the two songs they will be taking to LABBS Convention in October, but the more fundamental remit I had been given was to help their director Lucy develop the collection of musical concepts she uses with the chorus. It’s all very well feeling that the music should go a certain way, she pointed out, or even being advised to shape it like that, but she wants to know why.

In giving me this remit, she framed the goal explicitly in terms of extending her own skill set as director; if the chorus also understood the concepts, that’s great, but the main point was to leave her with ideas she could use to inform her musical decisions and judgements. As a result I found myself using more technical terms than I usually might, which was an interesting experience to come so soon after my post about rehearsal/coaching lexicons and my relationship with technical language.

Even more interestingly, those chorus members who have some background with music theory were really excited to have the opportunity to apply that knowledge. It is very easy to fight shy of theory in the name of inclusiveness, but my observation here was that those people who didn’t have the technical background to understand all of it didn’t resent those who do having new toys to play with. And if we want to persuade those who are nervous about things they fear are difficult that it’s worth the effort to develop this knowledge, seeing their friends lit up by it is as good a motivator as any.

And of course there are plenty of musical concepts that you can learn from within the experience of singing the music. We started out with tessitura, since their ballad is a classic example of the way David Wright crafts an emotional arc by the systematic control of vocal register. He takes the inherent expressive range of the melody, and through the use of key changes and varied voicing amplifies the contrasts and thus the range of vocal/emotional colours the piece demands.

For instance, in the early part of the song, there are some notes that are right at the bottom of the possible range for female basses. The upper three parts need to know that their bassline will necessarily be sung with delicacy at this point – these are notes that need nurturing into brightness without any attempt to force them if they are to ring. The vocal demands of the bass tessitura thus mandate the expressive mode for everyone: thoughtful, gentle, sensitive.

Once the other three parts find the tone that works with these bass notes, not only to the basses find it much easier to sing them well, but you have opened up the possibility for a much more architectural expressive trajectory.

At the other end of the song, everyone lifts up into a much more declarative part of their ranges, and the task becomes more to be aware of the peaks in the tenor line, as these chart the upper reaches of the song’s tessitura.

A theme that emerged through this work, and kept reappearing with other musical concepts (width of voicing, what happens when the bass is on the 3rd, balancing to the melody as it moves between parts) was increasing awareness of what each other are doing. This is in part a matter of listening in real time: if you can't hear the melody, you need to listen louder. But it’s also about the relationship each singer has with the musical texture. You can only go so far by learning your part in isolation, as what everyone else is doing has ongoing implications for how you need to sing it.

A phrase that was picked out as helpfully capturing the artistic impact of this was ‘Let what the other parts are doing here colour your note’. It emerged from a particular moment in the their uptune where a bass-bari move totally changed the harmonic flavour of held notes in the tenor and lead, but by picking it out in our end-of-day debrief, that singer was asserting its wider applicability to her musical tasks.

This fed again into my reflections on a chorus’s lexicon. A coach can visit and contribute material, but the phrases that a chorus integrates into its culture are chosen by the chorus according to what speaks to their condition at that particular point in their journey. I always give space for reflection at the end of a coaching day for general educational usefuless – people are more likely to retain what they’ve learned if they process it together before going home, and it makes sure I don’t depart leaving them with any unfinished business.

But this reflective/retaining process isn’t just one of fixing in memory what has been experienced, it’s an active negotiation of what the singers connected with and want to develop further.

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