November 2013

Thoughts on the Mixed Quartet

This year's winners, PatchworkThis year's winners, Patchwork

LABBS Convention this year saw the UK’s second mixed quartet contest, following on from last year’s inaugural event. The standard was once again good, and the audience support enthusiastic, so it looks like it could be finding itself a regular fixture in the British barbershop year.

I reflected at some length after last year’s contest on the gender identity and voice-part identity interplays and instabilities that the genre brings out, and this year’s impressions are on similar themes.

Gesture and Words, Part and Whole

This post started out as a paragraph in my account of the Zemel workshop on singing and movement, but grew into a post in its own right. It concerns an insight I had during the workshop that - as these things so often do - feels a bit obvious now I write it down, but felt like quite a penny-drop moment at the time.

It concerns the cognitive challenge of fitting gestures to lyrics when your part of a choral texture is singing something other than those lyrics. Lyric-based gestures, when designed to fit naturalistically to the concepts in the narrative (i.e. paced like natural speech in their frequency and not unduly pantomimic or literal in form) actually help you remember the words, once you have got over the shock to the system of operating hands and voice at the same time.

But choral arrangements don’t always give everybody all the words. Sometimes you have oohs or ahs or individual words picked out of the longer narrative. Singing these while doing gestures designed to go with the lyrics is a rather more demanding task.

Exploring Gesture and Voice

gesture_voice.JPGI recently spent a morning working with the director and assistant director of a choir on a variety of elements of both vocal and conducting techniques. It was an interesting session for all kinds of reasons, not least the resonances between the work on their own voices and the work on how they will help others’ voices with their gestures.

We spent the first part of the conducting work using the principle that you can hear what kind of effect your gestures will have on a choir by listening to how they affect your own voice. Singing a simple 5-note scale to a conducted 4-pattern, for example, gives a very immediate and clear indication of where that pattern facilitates legato and where it is bumping. Down-beats in particular are a challenge to combine the clarity needed for accurate rhythm and a synchronised performance with the continuity that voices need to flow at their best.

On Costuming and Authenticity

The only picture I've found from the show itself: a bit grainy, but gives an impression...The only picture I've found from the show itself: a bit grainy, but gives an impression...

One of the highlights for me at October's ladies' barbershop convention in Llandudno was the premiere of two arrangements commissioned by the Cottontown Chorus for the Saturday night show. The Meatloaf ballad 'Two Out of Three Ain't Bad' and a medley of a ridiculous number of other Meatloaf songs (35 minutes of original music crunched down to about 8 mins of a cappella!) were at the heart of their set, and provided the theme around which they built the rest.

This was a highlight for all the obvious reasons. Not just that it's exciting to hear one's creation come to life for the first time (a treat I also had over the weekend from Silver Lining), but that it's exciting to hear extended musical structures sung so well. And they had really gone to town on the staging, even building a mock Harley Davison out of an old chopper bike and bits of motorcycle.

...And Thanks for All the Cake....

Just before the recent LABBS convention, I came to the decision that I would stand down from the role of barbershop contest judge at the end of 2013. I have told my judging colleagues, and I am choosing to tell you in my blog so that it won’t be too much of a surprise to you next time we meet at a barbershop event and I’m not on duty. With any luck we may even get to talk about something other than this when we next meet!

It is simply that I have been serving as a registered judge for 13 years and feel like that's enough for now, thank you.

You know how it is when somebody gives you a piece of cake, and you think, 'Ooh how exciting!' And then they offer you another piece, and you think, 'Lovely!' When they offer you a third piece, the cake is as nice as it ever was, but you're a bit less excited by it. Sensible people don't wait until they've stopped enjoying it to stop eating.

Celebrate with Singing and Movement

Every year, Zemel Choir holds workshop day called ‘Celebrate with Song’ at which they invite visitors to join them for a day of music-making in preparation for a concert a couple of weeks later. This year, they invited me to come and lead a workshop on ‘Singing and Movement’ during the afternoon. It ran twice, each time with half the participants, while the others spent the time with expert on Russian and East European traditions of Jewish music, Polina Skovoroda-Shepherd.

Short workshops like this always present of the dilemma of how you balance the big-picture value of exploring skills and ideas with the goal-directed needs of preparing people for a performance. This dilemma is heightened when a significant number of participants have a relatively brief space of time in which to absorb all the repertoire in the first place - they may not have a lot of cognitive space left to think about other parts of the body.

On Singing the Post

No, I don't mean the musical equivalent of a stripogram; the post I am talking about here is that particular feature of barbershop arrangements when a song is finished with a long (sometimes very long) note.

The post is nearly always the tonic note, and its origin is as the final note of the melody. In traditional short-form barbershop songs such 'Heart of my Heart' or 'My Wild Irish Rose', you can hear this very clearly - the post is simply a matter of sustaining the end of the melody through a short embellishment that tidies up the end of the song and finishes it neatly.

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