Sing A Cappella – Further Observations

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I talked in a recent post about the range and variety of groups participating in last week’s Sing A Cappella day in Hounslow. This variety made it possible to see some interesting relationships between, on one hand, people’s working practices and their relationship with musical content, and on the other people’s musical background and their habits of phrasing and articulation.

Vox Concordia with Wendy NieperVox Concordia with Wendy NieperSwindon Scratch ChoirSwindon Scratch Choir

Working Practices

This refers to how different groups go about learning and performing music. The workshop participants included the full range from people who learn everything by rote and (therefore by definition) perform from memory to those who not only learn from the sheet music, but perform from it also. There were also plenty of examples from the middle parts of this continuum, including people who learn from the sheet music, but perform from memory, and groups where some members read music, but others learn from recorded teaching materials.

Seeing this range of working practices revealed that there is an inverse correlation between how much people rely on memory and their capacity to mentally isolate moments within the music. Groups working from paper could start straight in at any point with little or no difficulty, whereas for groups who had learned from sheet music, but were singing from memory this involved more of a mental overhead – it took a few moments to locate the starting point in memory, and they sometimes needed a couple of bars run in to find it accurately. Groups who had learned by rote had the hardest job to perform this kind of random access, and would usually need to go back to major formal boundaries to find their place.

And this makes sense of course – if you’re storing the musical content on paper, then it is essentially outside of you, and it’s much easier to point to a specific moment and go, since you are effectively uploading the music into your head afresh each time. If you have memorised the music, then locating a mid-phrase start point requires you to re-create this split between the performing person and the music, within that person. And if you have learned the music by ear, this split has never really existed for you in the first place. Notation thus is not only a handy storage and communication device for music, but it significantly changes our relationship with our own experience of music.

I’m sure there are parallels with the effect of literacy on previously oral cultures here – but you don’t get to see those differences side by side so much, which makes the musical version so interesting.

Musical Background and Phrasing

This was something I noticed in particular watching singers from a Swingle background working with people from a barbershop background. The approach to vocal phrasing from both sides resonated very strongly with the kinds of textures they had previously worked with. In particular, on several occasions, I heard one of the educators advocating a strong start to a note followed by an immediate fade to let another part of the texture through, rather than the strong sustaining of tone that was the barbershoppers’ default approach.

Now, if you think about it, barbershoppers have this default approach because their craft is developed for an arrangement style that is strongly homophonic so as to allow the development of a continuously expanded sound. Yes, there is dynamic variety (at least, there is when it’s done well!), but it would tend to work at the level of the phrase rather than this kind of small-scale inflection.

The Swingle experience, by contrast, is strongly characterized by textural variety, and makes a commensurate demand on the singers’ capacity to keep out of each other’s way. Moreover, the vocal production required is quiet and light to maximize flexibility and agility in contrast to the very muscular sound that barbershop has cultivated, particularly since the early 1980s. (Note that quiet and light does not mean un-supported: it was fascinating to watch Wendy Nieper improve a group's pitch accuracy in fast passages by working on their use of their back muscles!)

So, it made perfect sense that when barbershoppers branched out into more texturally-varied repertoire they would need to adjust their vocal habits to match. But it was even more interesting to see the Barbershop Harmony Society’s published arrangement of ‘Bye Bye Love’ being given the same treatment. The bass-line of this chart is full of propellants from one phrase to the next, and the upper parts sustaining the last note of the phrase were encouraged to tail off far more than you’d typically hear in a barbershop context.

And this in turn suggests that, while arrangement styles do encode all sorts of expectations about the performance habits that will be brought to bear on them, they do not determine them. One can get very useful insights in appropriate performance decisions by the close study of the musical content, but you can’t derive rules thereby.

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