A Cappella

Back in Person with Surrey Harmony

How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?

Well, that was a treat! Wednesday saw my first live coaching visit since last Spring. It was Surrey Harmony, down in Coulsdon, whom I’d not worked with for 6 years or so. They had two new songs just off the copy, one of which I had arranged for them, and were ready to get their teeth into bringing the music to life.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how refreshing it is for an ensemble to have a different consciousness in the room, hearing new things, imagining different possibilities from the ones they are used to. It is equally refreshing for the coach to hear different voices, to diagnose different strengths and needs; these encounters stimulate the creativity in ways that your regular rehearsal can’t. The familiarity of a long-term working relationship brings the opportunity to build, but by definition doesn’t force you to listen and think afresh in the same way as you have to when faced with the unfamiliar.

On Painting with a Limited Palate

Culinary metaphors appear frequently in both my coaching and my writing about music. It’s a relatable sphere of experience – everyone has experience of eating – and I enjoy cooking as a creative endeavour in its own right.

A recent bout of covid has got me thinking about cooking as a compositional metaphor in a new way. A week after my symptoms first started that my sense of smell went on the wonk. It didn’t stop me cooking – we still needed to eat, after all, and when you’re stuck at home self-isolating, cooking is a good way to pass the time, as everyone discovered last year in lockdown.

But creating and consuming meals without the olfactory dimension is a very different experience from usual. For one thing, it made me notice anew how much I navigate my way round the kitchen by smell: judging spicing levels, gauging doneness. Now I have to work by theory rather than by feel: how much ginger would you expect a recipe to specify for this quantity?; how long should this take to cook?

Will it Shop?

My title is the name of an education session to be presented by the Nordic barbershop organisations in a week or two’s time, pre-recorded at the weekend. For those outside the barbershop bubble, this rather cryptic-looking question is shorthand for: ‘does this song lend itself readily to being arranged in a way that will meet the style criteria for barbershop contest?’ The fact that this quite specialised and complex question can be reduced down to three syllables tells you that it is a subject that often comes up in barbershop conversations.

I’m not going to tell you much detail about the content of the session, because you can go and sign up and get that directly, but I wanted to mull a bit about a few observations I made en route.

On the Aesthetics of Perfection/Imperfection

We strive to perfect our musical performances, yet the idea that something can be too perfect remains a perennial counter-narrative in musical aesthetics. As far back as the early 19th century, ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber celebrated musical imperfections as signifiers of honesty and authenticity, in contrast to the artifice of high skill.

Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ similarly saw the polish of a classically-trained tone as smoothing away the individuality of the singer, in contrast to the vocal texture of vernacular styles, which he heard as vehicle for the singers’ physicality and life history.

Even more recently, Deke Sharon applied this criticism to barbershop in his keynote address at Harmony University in 2018. By prioritising continuity of ring over all other communicative elements, he suggested, the genre creates a shiny sonic carapace that can serve to keep outsiders at a distance, even while it affirms those in the know.

Pitch and Paraverbal Expression

Last summer, Stefanie Schmidt visited the Telfordaires to lead a really interesting workshop on paraverbal markers: those elements of speech that don’t show up in written words but which carry so much extra information. Salience, attitude, strength of feeling, context all shine through in the inflections with which we pronounce anything we say.

A lot of singing technique involves, in the initial stages, learning to strip out the accidental lumps and bumps that these markers can insert into the vocal line. Two key elements of an effective legato are getting the tone running consistently through all notes, not just the ones that carry sense-laden meaning, and controlling consonants so they don’t add scoops or cut short vowels.

But the texts we sing still carry meaning, so part of learning to operate our voices at will is to be able to decide when and how to use paraverbal elements paramusically: articulation, timbre, dynamics.

Soapbox: Technical Difficulty is not the Same as High Standards

soapboxToday’s opinion piece arises from a conversation about an arrangement I was helping an ensemble with recently. They liked the song but were concerned that the chart might be too hard for them. My view was that the arranger had placed quite a lot of unnecessary obstacles in their path.

Ah yes, came the reply, but that arranger is working with [an ambitious up-and-coming group] and sets the bar high.

I’m not saying what the chart was, or who the people involved are, as it’s really not about them personally, it’s about the ideas that emerged in this exchange. There are any number of other examples that I could be equally opinionated about, it’s just this one sparked me to return to writing on a theme long-time readers will have seen before.

A Day of British Barbershop Director Education

Moments from the LABBS eventMoments from the LABBS event

Saturday saw the best weather we’ve had round here all year, so of course I ended up on Zoom for hours instead of sitting out in the sunshine. The afternoon was taken up by the LABBS Directors Education day, on the theme of returning to live rehearsals. We’d set this theme months ago, before the roadmap was published with no idea that our date would actually fall two days before a major announcement about the next step. One of our guest speakers, Prof Martin Ashley, quoted my email to invite him from back in February:

…we don't know of course exactly where we'll be by June, but some kind of live musicking will almost certainly be allowed by then, although not yet back to what one might call 'normal'

Which as predictions go is about as spot-on as I’m ever likely to achieve again!

BABS Virtual Convention 2021

It is very strange being at home for the last weekend in May; for the last 25 years I have usually spent it in a town which hosts a large convention centre, missing the start of the summer weather to huddle indoors with a couple of thousand other people bingeing on barbershop music. This year, while it is not yet possible to convene safely in large numbers, especially indoors, we were still able to binge-watch barbershop at home, courtesy of the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ Virtual Convention.

The event filled most of the time slot it would usually occupy, starting on Friday afternoon and running all day and evening Saturday and Sunday. It also preserved the combination of contributions from member choruses and quartets, offerings from international guests, participatory events, education, and items that celebrated the ongoing life of the organisation such as long-service awards.

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