Revitalising Songs with Signature

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One of the dilemmas that faces any performer is how, on one hand, to keep their material fresh and interesting in performance while, on the other, rehearsing it deeply to a state of polish and absolute reliability. Or, to put it more bluntly, how do you stop yourself getting bored? Obviously, bringing new material in is part of the mix, but you can’t just keep throwing out the old too quickly, both because that is very wasteful of rehearsal time, but more importantly because both technical expertise and depth insight are built on extended engagement with the material.

This is what I went to help Signature Singers with last Sunday. They have a contest set that they are not done with in terms of the skills and artistry the songs will help them develop, but they were feeling a bit bogged down with it all. Their heads knew they would benefit from working with the songs further, but their hearts were getting a bit jaded.

Interestingly, the difficulties they had flagged up in advance with their up-tempo number were twofold: stamina (and a tendency to lose tempo), and the need for more expression and variety in performance (it was all getting a bit relentless). I had a hunch that these might not actually be different problems, but that it was the lack of variety that was leading to the stamina difficulties. I was right about the variety, as it turns out, but the tempo issues turned out to have an origin that neither I nor the chorus had anticipated.

We started out by song-mapping that up-tempo number. Analysis of form is helpful not only for memorising music, but also for shaping it. You need to know where you are on the journey, where the diversions are, and when you are on the home straight. It is very easy to get obsessed with the details in a piece of music, and - while those details are of course absolutely essential to nurture - if they don’t have a clear framework to fit into, it is very hard to keep track of them, and they all start to blur together.

From there, I sent the chorus off in small groups of mixed parts to go through the song and identify the ‘moments’ (see I told you the details would be important). We defined a ‘moment’ as places where the music should make the audience go ‘ooh!’.

One of the things that is very interesting about Signature at the moment is that they are operating without a director, effectively performing as a VLQ (Very Large Quartet). This presents them with all sorts of challenges, but also gives them all sorts of opportunities. They have always - even when directed - had a culture of individual responsibility, of refusing to develop that kind of dependence on a director that results in both the advantages and disadvantages of obedience.

So, being told to go and figure out stuff about the music for themselves was something they were more than willing to take in their stride. And subsequently, they were perfectly happy to take responsibility for making the moments they had identified work without looking to be told what to do. In that one exercise they had done 90% of the work needed.

Most of the rest of my work on this song turned out to be undergrowth clearing to help the moments stand out. Wherever a moment wasn’t working, it was usually that what happened immediately before it was being sung too emphatically, so that the moment itself didn’t show. We spent quite a lot of time talking about orchestration, scoring certain phrases for saxophone so that the trumpet interjections provided a contrast. It is much easier to execute this kind of change than merely trying to sing a bit quieter, which always feels like a negative approach. Having some kind of positive thing to do to a phrase gives much more expressive clarity than merely having to ‘remember to back off’.

We had similar discussions in their ballad, where each major section of the song grew from a unison opening. If you have an amazing unison like Signature do, it is all to easy to over-state these phrase origins, so we defined these as the seeds from which the phrase grew, not the plant itself. The metaphor then developed into a means to conceptualise relative sizes of growth - which phrases blossomed as small flower, which as medium-sized shrubs, and which as mighty trees. I think we shall all look at hydrangeas a bit differently from now on.

Having started the day out with song-mapping, we were able to work on the detail of each song working backwards section by section. This in itself is a good way to refresh your relationship with the music, and it also means that you are always rehearsing a passage with a clear awareness of where it is heading. But the big surprise was what the method revealed about the tempo difficulties they had mentioned.

As we worked our way back through the up-tempo song, the rhythm seemed entirely reliable to me and so I had almost forgotten that this had been an issue. When we got back to the very start, though, the opening was a significantly faster tempo than we had used for any of the preceding sections. It also reminded me that I had been initially surprised how fast they were taking it for the tempo marking (‘shuffle swing’).

This led to the conclusion that the problem with tempo wasn’t that it kept slowing down, but that they were starting too fast. There was clearly a very natural tempo for the main body of the song that they had arrived at together and maintained without batting an eyelid, and it had clearly been exerting its pull on them every time they had tried to start off faster. So we took the introduction back to that speed, and after the initial surprise, found that it allowed all kind of extra detail to show that had previously not had space to shine.

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