January 2020

8-Parter Project: Thoughts on Balance and Voicing

Having walked through the differences in range and characteristic vocal behaviours of the respective singers SSAATTBB versus M&F quartet textures, it is time to consider the implications for how we combine them into harmony. This is the bit where I’m finding, so far, the greatest tension between the idea of two discrete ensembles in combination and a single, 8-part texture.

First, a basic principle of voicing. Generally, you want the notes lower down in the chord to be spaced wider apart than those higher up in the chord. This is true not just of a cappella writing, but tonal music in general: having spent my formative years as a pianist, my left hand is actually bigger than my right, due to having perpetually to reach wider spans with it.

This is both relative and absolute. In both male and female barbershop textures, you’ll generally have the tenor tucked in tighter to the top of the chord, and the bass a bit further away in open voicings, and you’ll tend to avoid closed voicings in lower tessituras.

On Connecting with the Real

Last autumn, shortly after I’d blogged about the research stream at the abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I received an email from a reader about the diagram I had included from Michael Bonshor’s paper about the relationship between practice and research. I like everything about it so will quote in full:

It was very affirming to see that little diagram on your blog this evening.

I've been working for seven years as supply staff for a small, private children's nursery. Lots of frustrations, wondering how things could be done better. Meanwhile reading your blog makes me feel that I still have a functional brain when there is little other evidence. Thank you!

Now I'm about to embark on a Masters in Childhood and Youth Studies. I think they need more academics who have done the 7.30am starts and 6pm finishes, coming home covered in yoghurt and playdough to fall asleep during The Archers.

Hoping I might eventually complete that circle, help some people, change something for the better. (I sing a bit too)

The Telfordaires Feedback Protocol

This post started out as a document to share with participants on the Telfordaires’ Learn to Sing in Harmony Course, which runs until mid-February 2020. When I was trying to decide whether to distribute it as an attachment to our weekly email of follow-up resources or as a link to a shared drive where we have some other learning materials, I realised that in fact a link to a blog post would be easier than either. And there’s nothing here that we don’t mind sharing with the rest of the singing world, so why not be generous with our ideas?

During the rehearsal process, we like to make opportunities for singers to listen all or part of the chorus and give feedback on what they've heard. One situation for this is the activity from Week 3 of the course we call 'voicework', where we break down the music into individual sections and duets to focus on how people are using their voices. Another is coming up in Week 4, where we'll use internal coaches to rehearse the whole group singing together. (‘Internal coaches’ are coaches from within the chorus, as opposed to bringing in external experts to coach us as we do a couple of times a year.)

In all cases, the idea of sharing round the opportunity to give feedback is that every person who participates in singing harmony comes with a lifetime’s experience and insight from their enjoyment of music, and these responses can help us all grow as musicians and performers. You learn different things by standing out and thinking about what the music needs than you do from inside it singing, and we all learn different things from hearing different people's perspectives.

8-Parter Project: The Nature of the Ensemble

So, having thought about how different types of song persona play out in a mixed 8-part ensemble, it is time to think about the nature of that ensemble, in the first instance with a single-persona song. The process of revisiting my chart of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ from 2008 (coming soon to Sheet Music Plus) has got me reflecting on how an SSAATTBB group (or SATB divisi as it turns out easier to say in conversation) is quite a different animal from combined male and female barbershop ensembles, whether quartet or chorus.

Back in 2008 I was clearly thinking about SSAATTBB for this chart, and it is interesting to see how certain decisions I made back then signal it very clearly. In the process of revising it, I have deliberately chosen to recraft for combined barbershop groups, and this post articulates some of the ways in which the two formats of 8-part group differ. A later post will go on to reflect on balance and voicing.

How shall we deal with Spontaneous Gesture?*

My thoughts on researching gesture, in response to a question at the research day at Dublin City University in November, produced, during the process of writing them down, two more things that needed thinking about. Such is the process of writing. The point that the kind of spontaneous, intuitive gestures that are the most interesting bits of conducting are not, by definition, subject to self-aware control, presents two practical problems. Well, at least two; I may think of more as I write today!

First is the point that varying the physical form of conducting gestures clearly does make a difference to choral sound, and that investigating the nature of these differences is clearly a useful area for choral research. How, then, might one devise a method to focus on this?

Second, is the question for teaching conducting of the relationship between spontaneous gesture and habit. What comes intuitively may or may not be helpful to singers. I spend a good deal of my life teaching conductors in trying to help them adjust habitual motions (often involving multiple body parts and/or extraneous tension) that are getting in the way of either the musical clarity of the gestures or the singers’ vocal production. The reason it is so hard to make these changes is that they are part and parcel of the conductors’ established modes of musical thought.

8-Parter Project: Initial Thoughts

As I mentioned back in October, I have decided to stop taking arrangement commissions for the first half of 2020 in order to embark on a project to explore 8-part arranging that I’ve had on the ‘to do later’ pile for over a decade. I made all kinds of interesting inroads into the technical and artistic questions it raises back in 2007 when I arranged ‘Summer Nights’ for the combined LABBS and BABS youth choruses, and then followed up with an SSAATTBB chart of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ in 2008, which has never been sung.

That was probably one of the last charts I did just for the sheer fun of it, without a particular ensemble in mind, before I found myself blessed with a constant stream of commission requests. Having had the opportunity to perform Renee Craig’s 8-part chart of ‘With a Song in My Heart’ with the Telfordaires on our sister chorus’s 10th anniversary show in November, my thoughts had been turning back to these questions, and I decided that if I wanted to find time to explore them, I was going to have to make time.

On Para-musical Performance Instructions, and Implicit Shaping

By ‘para-musical’ I mean all those annotations around musical notation that tell you how, as opposed to what, to play or sing. Dynamics, articulation, descriptive words - often in Italian, though Satie had a nice line in metaphors in his native French. This post emerges from helping an arranger recently who was working on a saxophone quartet: the question emerged of just how much of this stuff is needed?

The answer that emerged as generalisable for all musical contexts was: use what looks like a normal amount for the genre you’re working in. You do this by going at looking at other music that the ensemble routinely plays. Norms can vary enormously. Some orchestral scores, especially since the mid-20th-century, micromanage almost every note, whilst barbershop, like baroque music, rarely includes any. It’s not, as I have seen claimed in some undergraduate essays, that they didn’t do expressive shaping in the C17th, it’s just that it was assumed that anyone with sufficient skill to read the notes would have enough nous to figure out what to do with them.

Welcome to the Twenties!

Happy New Year everyone, indeed Happy New Decade!

It's funny how we have a good ten year's warning that the next higher-level change in arbitrary articulation of time is going to happen, but when it comes along I never seem to feel quite ready for it. Fortunately, the time keeps ticking past whether I have myself organised or not, so maybe I can just carry on with what I was going to do anyway.

Still, January is the tradition time for new starts, and I have some fun projects lined up for the first part of the year. My chorus, the Telfordaires, will be running a Learn to Sing in Harmony course from next Wednesday - and there's still time to sign up if you know any guys in Shropshire or its environs who might like to join in the fun.

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