February 2020

Adventures in Aberdeenshire

Traditional warm-up pic: with added antlersTraditional warm-up pic: with added antlers

I spent the weekend up in snowy Aberdeenshire with the Granite City Chorus at their annual retreat. They have an effective structure for the event, which they hold at a hotel about 45 minutes out of the city where they’re based – close enough for convenience, but far enough to feel bracketed off from regular life. We had a full day for coaching on the Saturday, followed by a convivial evening, with a nice balance of planned activity (meal, quiz, singing) and unstructured social time. Sunday’s work finished with lunch, meaning everyone could find their way back to real life before they got too wiped out.

The thing that makes this structure so effective is the chance to work on things, then revisit them after a night’s sleep. It is during sleep that new skills and knowledge get transferred from short-term memory into longer-term storage, so on the second day you discover which bits made that journey safely, and which bits fell out en route. There’ll always be some of each, but you can’t tell in advance which will be which. It also gives you the opportunity at the end of the first day to discuss together what people would like to spend time on in the morning. As a coach, this means you go in better prepared, and as a singer you go in primed for what’s coming next.

8-Parter Project: Exploring Duets

Having played with texture and voicing in arranging a single-persona song for a double quartet/chorus ensemble, I have turned by attention to double-persona songs, or duets as you’d call them when each persona is represented by an individual singer rather than a group. The structure of combining a male and female ensemble, each with a pre-existent and ongoing identity as a performing unit, maps very easily onto the classic girl-boy duet structure, and the practice of groups combining for numbers when they appear on shows together means there is a ready need for charts they can sing together.

The first two questions I’ve bumped up against are as follows.

Key

The norm in barbershop writing is that women sing in a key about a 4th or a 5th higher than men would for the same arrangement. Duets, on the other hand, are typically written with both singers singing in the same key. In 8-part charts this often leads to the men being pushed a bit lower than is comfortable for them and/or the women being pushed a bit too high.

Harmonising Blue Notes

At the start of this year, I was sharing some feedback with an arranger on a chart-in-progress, and went to send him my post on the difference between blue 3rds and minor 3rds. It turned out that I’d never actually written it, and what I was remembering having written took place in an email conversation with Adam Scott back in 2014 when he was commissioning ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the Barbershop Harmony Society.

So it looks like I should probably get around to writing it now, as the technical and artistic challenges of blue notes for a cappella arranging aren’t going to go away.

On Finding Your Audience

I was recently asked some interesting questions by a composer I’ve been helping, and it struck me that the answers might have wider applicability beyond his circumstances. He’s been re-working a song that he originally wrote for classroom use into a more developed and sophisticated arrangement for vocal ensemble and band, and our conversations have hitherto been about things like crafting form through texture, harmonic voicing, and vocal writing.

Now these technical questions are getting more fully under control, he’s turning his attention to the real-life question of what kind of groups might want to take it on to perform it. He has been advised that it could easily be marketed to schools if he pared it down to a unison setting – which he already knows of course because that’s where the song has already been road-tested. But his personal aims in returning to composing after some time away has been to be more ambitious than this, both technically and artistically.

Reconnecting with the Rhubarbs

rhubarbsfeb20

After my evening of quartet coaching, I spent all of Saturday and until early afternoon Sunday with The Rhubarbs, the chorus from which Note-4-Note had originally formed. Two of the singers are still with the chorus, and there was a strong continuity of culture between the two ensembles. In particular the sense of everyone taking individual responsibility for her own voice, and the use of a common gestural vocabulary for musical thought was a shared strength.

Striking in both was also the capacity to keep applying a concept or technique once learned: there was still the need for periodic reminders (they are much like other human beings like this), but you could also see people continuing to work with the ideas between mentions. One of the advantages of a culture of using gesture to think is that not only I can see what people are working on, but they constantly reinforce things for each other too.

Coaching Note-4-Note

note-4-noteI spent my last evening as a citizen of the European Union in Bonn working with Note-4-Note quartet. I can highly recommend this as an experience as we could all get thoroughly immersed in the music and forget all the nonsense going on in the public sphere. Also, they are lovely people to work with. (Mind you, I say that a lot – maybe I only get booked by people who have figured out we’ll be compatible!)

They have been together for about three years now, and it was clear in the way they approached their warm-up that they were used to working together. There was a sense both of each singer taking responsibility for her own voice and vocal development, and of a coordinated approach to how to do this. They are very physically engaged as they sing, in the sense of keep the whole body flexible and connected to the vocal mechanism, and also in the sense of using gesture freely to aid their thought processes about both vocalising and musical shape.

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