Coaching the Chordettes

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Warm-up action shot: shared rhythmWarm-up action shot: shared rhythm

Saturday took me down to Devon to coach the Chordettes. Last time I worked with them I drove down there in my Vauxhall Corsa, and I replaced that car in early 2005, so it’s been a while. I can still remember the laugh we had about post-vocalic Rs, though, such being the kind of thing that stays with you forever.

Most of our work for the day was on the material they are preparing for LABBS Convention in October, including a ballad that I’ve not previously heard on the LABBS contest stage. I’ve not heard every contest performance of the last 20 years, but I’ve heard a reasonably high proportion, so even if it’s not a premiere I can confidently say it’s rare enough to be worth listening out for.

The most intensive bit of work we did on this song was on the harmonic adventures in its bridge. The song goes through a series of different keys in a few short phrases, leading to a quite unorthodox key change. The lyric told of changes and journeys, and the section functioned narratively like a filmic montage* of changing scenes.

And, just as the harmonic intricacies of this passaged demanded much more time and attention than the more tonally stable sections either side, it takes longer to film and edit the variety of content in its movie equivalent. In both cases, the parts that take the most time and attention to get right play a proportionately significant part in the emotional impact of the whole.

As so often the case, we found that where a chord was out of focus, the root of the problem was usually before the chord that ostensibly needed attention. In several places we found a wrong note that when first sounded went well with the chord, and only emerged as problematic when the chord changed around it.

It was also in the ballad that the Chordettes’ director, Sue Baxter, had a really useful insight into the conducting process. We had been considering the way that some phrase-end embellishments foreshadowed the emotional trajectory of the following phrase, and she extrapolated from there to a general point about phrase boundaries. Just as, when you’re playing an instrument, you have to read ahead so that you’re ready to play the music when you get to it, so the director has to be thinking ahead to what comes next if she’s to be there in time to help the chorus anticipate it. If the director is merely on time mentally, the singers will be late.

We prefaced our afternoon’s work on their up-tempo number with some work on bucket-cup-teaspoon breathing. The song started with a quaver rest, which may have functioned rhythmically as a breath-point, but wasn’t long enough to take a proper lungful to support the start of a song. Making sure everyone emptied bucket-first when they heard the pitch, then filled in preparation of the downbeat took the weight off that opening rest.

I only articulated this thought fully as I wrote up my notes on the train home, but I think it’s a safe generalisation that this kind of articulatory breath should only really involve the teaspoon, not the cup – and certainly not the bucket. And in terms of the difference to the sound any of our activities of the day made, bucket-cup-teaspoon breathing was up there with bubbling as providing the most immediate and dramatic upgrade.

The bucket-cup-teaspoon concept came in useful again later on, when we were thinking about the kind of bodily lift need to sustain the interest over a grand pause. It needs to be generated from the lower body and carry on up through the back to the crown, rather than lifting the chest from the waist up. This is not just because the latter looks eager rather than powerful; it’s also because lifting the ribs up and forwards narrows the back. This is something I have demonstrated many times in my life before, but Saturday was the first time I explained the problem as being that it dents your bucket.

* I couldn’t remember the word montage when this came up, but fortunately a chorus member could. One of the things I love about working with groups is the opportunity to use other people’s brains.

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