On the Melody of Harmony Parts in the Time of Covid

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The value of writing harmony parts that are intuitive to sing is something I have been going on about, in various contexts, for years. At a practical level, it saves you rehearsal time; at an artistic level, it allows performers to focus on singing expressively without needing their technical brains monitoring the detail all the time.

As with so many things, the exigencies of life under covid have brought this imperative into even sharper relief. When we first took our rehearsals online, and found ourselves in a world where people can’t viably sing together, there was a lot of bright-siding on the theme of how this would require all our singers to take more individual responsibility for learning their music.

Choral discourse has always been hard on those who get dubbed ‘leaners’, and I’ve often felt this isn’t entirely fair. I totally get the value of nurturing a confident independence in choral singers, and will routinely encourage singers to step out musically, to sing as leaders. But the sensitivity to others, and the capacity to tune into what’s going on around you, that so-called leaners use to navigate by is also of value; you don’t actually want a choir full of people singing as soloists.

And of course, that sense of disappearing into something larger than yourself is one of the primary pleasures of singing in a choir. Not only is immersing someone into a warm bath of sound one of the quickest ways to help them find their own capacity to sing, but it offers a visceral and direct sense of belonging. If virtual rehearsals have taught us nothing else, it is how important that sensation is to us.

Still, in its absence, we have indeed learned other things. One is how much the act of ‘leaning’ – in its milder forms - is integral to the underlying self-regulation of a choir. Human beings are forever making small mistakes and self-correcting; this is how you build skill. When people do it within the flow of choral sound, much of it is almost below the level of conversant awareness: you come slightly off-piste in your pitch, or rhythm, or words, but others around you getting it right pull you back on before you hardly notice.

Sometimes a mistake is too big to rescue and things fall apart. Even then, just taking another run at it often fixes a lot of the problems. The conductor only really needs to intervene where multiple people are struggling. One of the joys that coming back to even our limited live rehearsing has offered is once again to access this capacity for an ensemble to sort out so much between themselves within the flow of the music.

Another thing I have learned – and this is the bit that made me start writing this post in the first place – is to attend to the kinds of mistakes people make when they are removed from that regulating context. Years ago, a singer called Pearl who sang bass in a quartet I was coaching used the wonderful phrase, ‘It’s so easy to sing the line of least resistance,’ and you hear this line all the more clearly when people are singing their parts in isolation.

These mistakes are absolute gold for teaching arrangers their craft. They tell you precisely the difference between what we’ve written and what people feel natural to sing. Of course, when we are writing our lines, we are working in the context of needing to make harmonies work, so don’t have free rein to write melodic shapes at will. Then again, in the normal run of things that harmonic context would also exert a strong guiding force on the singers as they negotiate their way through it. Indeed, one could argue that the lines of least resistance we hear sung online are a comment at least as much on the intuitiveness of our harmonic choices as on the melodiousness of our lines.

But our goal needs to be to write lines that survive the fragmentational processes of online rehearsing, lines that make enough musical sense that they don’t get re-written by intuition. Both for the integrity of the music when it is put together, whether in a virtual choir recording or when we can get back together properly, and for the experience of singing remotely. We want people to feel they can be expressive, and to make musical sense, even when we are taking it in turn to sing with the mics on.

As a coach I’ll often talk to ensembles about moving beyond singing your own part to feeling you are singing the whole music. As an arranger that gives me the obligation to put enough of the sense of the complete music in each part to facilitate that experience.

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