Getting into the Detail with Cleeve Harmony

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Cleeve Nov 2015As I was about to leave after my coaching session with Cleeve Harmony last Wednesday, their director, Donna, asked, ‘So what’s the blog going to be about?’ She thereby drew my attention to the process of reflection that goes into that decision. When we’ve only just stopped making music, all the multifarious things we have done together are all jumbled up in my head: vocal things, performance things, conducting things, musical things. It takes some time thinking back over it all to discover which bits are going to stand out as the bits I feel like writing about.

On this occasion, I awoke the next morning to the realisation that the part of the session that had stayed with me most vividly was an intensive 25 minutes or so focused on sorting out a sequence of just 7 chords that had never quite settled into place. You know the kind of passage - one you’ve got it near enough right that you get away with it in performance, but not right enough to feel happy with it.

It will often - as in this case - be the kind of gesture that appears only once in the song, so that it sorting it out feels quite ‘expensive’ in rehearsal time compared the amount you’re actually going to need it in performance, so you tend to put off dealing with it until after other priorities have been dealt with. By which time everyone has got used to just putting their heads down, barging through it blindly and coming up for air at the other end. Starting to unpick these passages can therefore be a bit of a struggle, but once you get deep into it, my goodness it’s rewarding.

The thing about these sticky passages is that where it looks like the problem may be often turns out not to be the issue at all - usually it’s something earlier in the phrase that looks innocuous, but is tripping people up en routeto the bit that looks trickier. The process of sorting it out is thus one of stripping it all back until you find the detail(s) that are out of place and addressing them intensively.

You’ll know when you’ve found the key one(s) because they are quite stubbornly out of place. Many details you can demonstrate and they come into focus quite easily; the ones that keep slipping back into odd places are the ones that are preventing all the other notes from slotting into true. It’s sometimes a wrong note issue, but with Cleeve it was one of those notes that are kind of right - you’d have accepted it from a piano - but was sitting in a position that prevented it from locking into the chord. The singers ‘knew’ the note, but they didn’t ‘get’ it.

A classic symptom of this is that when you demonstrate the melodic interval, what you hear back is what they’re already doing, not what you just sang. This tells you that they’re hearing your demonstration through the filter of how they’re currently understanding the note, and thus not perceiving the difference to which you are trying to draw attention.

This is, I reflected afterwards, a classic instance of the Blue Paint Problem. The issue wasn’t a lack of knowledge - they knew what the notes were supposed to be - but one of meaning. The shared understanding the section had developed of how that bit went didn’t fit the context and was actively impeding their acquisition of a more effective understanding.

One of my standard ways of dealing with this is to pare the texture back into duets to help people feel the relationship between the parts, and thus readjust their sense of context. And we had some joyously locked perfect 5ths using this process. But first there was that one note that was still acting as blue paint; it needed taking out in order to make room for the slightly-differently-tuned yellow paint that would allow harmonic coherence to prevail.

Deep into the isolate-and-repeat process you use to nail details like this, I hit upon an effective procedure that I will use again in such situations. It is quite normal in this kind of focused work to toggle back and forth between two notes or chords to help people experience and grasp the relationship between the two, but I found that starting the toggle on the second note and working backwards to the first circumvented the perceptual habits that had been getting in the way. After that, the relationships within duet fell into place, and the tricksy notes later in the phrase that I had thought might have been the issue took very little extra work to sound amazing.

I love this kind of concentrated diagnostic work. From the outside it may look nosebleedingly dull to home in on so few notes for so many minutes at a stretch, but from the inside, everyone is listening so actively that there’s no space to get bored. And all that cognitive work is brilliant for getting myelination going - you know that you’re not merely fixing the sticky bit, but that everyone is growing as musicians.

Interestingly, when it was time to move onto the next item in our plan, we had requests from the singers to continue that work by increasing the tempo and/or re-inserting the passage into a longer context. All of which will be useful things to do in due course, but at that point, the brains needed time to sleep on what we had done, to integrate it before building on it. But I think it is telling that the response to that kind of rigorous process isn’t ‘For goodness’ sake can we do something else now?’ but, ‘Hey - now I can do this, I want to go and use it!’

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