Reconnecting with the Rhubarbs

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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.

It is fourteen months since my last visit to this chorus (I knew this without looking it up because last time I came home with a recording of them singing Happy Birthday to my brother), and I was struck by how much they have developed in that time. They have a much more consistent sound than last time I heard them – cleaner and more connected – which allowed us to explore some more refined dimensions both of voice and musical delivery than previously.

As the weekend progressed our discussions became increasingly to be about process: I wasn’t just helping them work on the four songs they had identified for attention, but showing them how and why the techniques we were using worked. Since they clearly have a propensity to take ideas and make them their own, it is far more useful for me to leave them with principles they can apply than merely a few pages of music with their specific problems solved.

The discussion at the end of Sunday’s session also identified the usefulness of holistic approaches that can make multiple changes at once. Sometimes of course you have to trouble-shoot the detail, but if, for example, you can get people playing with long-range patterns of back-beat at different rhythmic levels, you find that a lot of the clipped vowels have smoothed themselves out in the process of discovering musical shape. Or you can deal with both vocal poise and stylistic feel in a madrigalian piece through characterisation: adopt the body language of a high-status C16th person in corset, opulent skirts, headdress and ruff, then you will have the posture and alignment to support legato fa-la-las.

You may think that a madrigal style is an unusual choice for a barbershop chorus. You’ll raise your eyebrows even more when I tell you it was an arrangement by Keith Abbs of a Beatles tune. I found this one particularly fascinating because I had just last week been drafting a blog post about the challenges of handling blue 3rds in major keys, with particular (but not exclusive) reference to the Beatles – I have it pencilled in to publish just after the accounts of this German trip.

Of the various solutions I had found to handle the tonal conundrums posed by this musical feature, it had never occurred to me to reimagine the music in a harmomic language that just predates the tonal system. But it actually works a treat: the chords are triadic by the era of the madrigal, but the harmonic language is mercurial, conceived in terms of modal writing, inflected by musica ficta in ways that produce startling harmonic contrasts exploited coloristically by Renaissance composers for dramatic effect.

When working with people for whom English is a second language, it is often helpful to leave space for people to translate what I’ve just said into their home tongue. It’s useful not only to check that those who are less practised in English have caught everything, but it also gives everyone a chance to live with a concept for a while and process it a bit more, which helps make up for the extra cognitive load they are carrying.

It also gives me a chance to develop my ear for a language: my German is at the level of muddling through an opera libretto if I know the story rather than anything useful for interacting with people, but I enjoy seeing what I can understand in a context where I know what’s going on. And thus I was delighted to hear The Rhubarbs’ director Bettina render ‘swooshythroughiness’ as ‘wusch-dadurch’. My German vocab may be limited, but I can’t help feeling I’m learning the most useful bits.

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