A Brand New Endeavour

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I spent Sunday working with Endeavour, a brand new mixed barbershop chorus. They have been in the planning for some time, but actually sang together for the first time on Saturday, so I had the honour being their first ever visiting coach. Their singers are drawn from barbershop groups in Ireland, the UK and Germany, so their rehearsals take the form of intensive weekends in locations handy for airports.

It is an auditioned chorus, and many of the singers know each other from participating in the various Harmony Brigades. Hence, it is populated with people with considerable experience and skill as singers, and who are accustomed to learning music independently. Their challenge is melding these vocal and musical resources into a coherent ensemble within a short timescale so as to make the most of the artistic potential available.

The great thing about a group made up of experienced quartetters is you need spend very little time on vocal craft. We had a few minutes of bubbling at the start of the day, partly to get the resonance and breath going as we eased from warm-up into repertoire, but even this was a musical as much as a vocal exercise, giving their director the opportunity to listen for musical flow. Thereafter, our work was almost exclusively in the dimensions of music, meaning and artistry. (For sure, we fixed some pitch loss in the process, but without focussing on that as an issue. With a group like this, you know you’re getting the art right when the tuning fixes itself.)

When you don’t have a lot of time together, ratio is important. There are a lot of good brains in the room, and you need to find ways to maximise their input. Duetting is always good value in theses circumstances (well, in most circumstances!). You could hear the development of the ensemble in the way the feedback on each pair of parts became increasingly specific and insightful. Fifteen or twenty minutes of holistic, collaborative learning about each other and about the music paid dividends all day.

Another great way to leverage the power of the brains in the room is to send people off in small groups of mixed parts to go through the music and find the ‘moments’. We were working on arrangements by David Wright, so there were lots of opportunities to make the audience go ‘ooh!’, and all it takes is identifying them for the singers to start bringing them to life. The key thing here is that you need not only the part with the candy to know it’s there, but for everyone else to be aware too. For the detail to sparkle, everyone needs to take responsibility not only for their own part, but for communicating the whole.

A recurrent theme was managing the level of expression such that key focal points within the song’s narrative stood out. In every case, everyone knew which the big moments were and what to do with them; what was needed was for the points of less extreme emotion to get out of the way and stop competing for attention. This worked at both the local level and over the whole song. To develop the expressive arc over a longer range, you need to keep your powder dry in its opening stages.

Part of the dynamic in developing the musical shape involved reflecting on the relationships the singers had with each other, and with the people they sing with in other contexts. These singers often find themselves taking responsibility for making the music happen. The Harmony Brigade experience, with its demands to learn large quantities of music and to make quartets work in unpredictable combinations, requires people who take a very positive approach and are ready to leap in with both feet. Back in the other choruses they sing with, they are often the glue that hold sections together, helping the less confident and less skilled through as a secure line to hold onto.

But the reason they wanted to make a chorus together was so that they didn’t each have to be the person others leaned on. They wanted to sing with those who had the skills and confidence to stand on their own two feet vocally and musically. Which meant that not only could they stop driving the music so hard, they really needed to do so now they had a room full of people all capable of carrying their own share of the musical burden. Otherwise the whole could become overly pushed; the singing was in danger of overpowering the music.

But once we’d identified this, the magic happened. As people started to relax and give both each other and the music space to speak, they could hear the beauty that was emerging more clearly. And once people start listening responsively, they can access their intuitive musicianship and start producing a kind of nuance and colour that you could never achieve using your analytical brain alone.

People only let that holistic part of themselves show when they feel safe to trust those they are making music with, so when it happens, you experience a double layer of magic. There is the aesthetic pleasure of being part of something that is both beautiful and meaningful. And there is the interpersonal joy of mutual affirmation, knowing you have created something together that speaks not only of the song’s story, but also of the singers’ emotional generosity and kindness to each other.

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