Exploring New Music with Signature

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There is a reason I chose this warm-up pic...There is a reason I chose this warm-up pic...

A week after the extravaganza of new music that was the LABBS/European Barbershop Convention, I was off to start work on one of next year’s offerings. Signature Singers recently commissioned an arrangement from me to bring to contest in 2018, and Saturday was the first of several planned sessions to start work on it together.

Signature have been operating without a director since the start of 2017, and whilst they are still on the lookout for an appropriate person to take on that role (hint: if that’s you, get in touch with them), they have decided not to let the absence of a director stop them from making music now, and from making plans for music in the future. So, Plan A is to take this music to Convention next year with a director appointed in the interim; Plan B is to take this music to Convention without a director.

As a small chorus, and one whose previous directors encouraged all singers to be very proactive in taking responsibility for the flow of the music, the challenge of performing without a director is one they have the skills to take on. But it still helps to have someone out front who can hear the whole and make artistic decisions in the context of the music’s needs and how the singers are getting on. In the absence of a director, that is, help from a coach becomes even more useful than ever.

As is my wont, I’m not going to tell you what song we were working on ahead of the big reveal next autumn. But, as ever, I can talk about process.

The chorus were a bit anxious about having coaching at this very early stage of the learning process – it is a bit like answering the door in your nightie. But there are things you can do at this stage that become much harder to address later.

The first of these we tackled was tonal integrity. As I was discussing with Just Voices last month, usually tonal centre loss happens because you have practised the music that way. And you practice it that way because you’re not necessarily thinking about it at the initial stages of learning a song when you have so much else to think about. So it is much easier to address while a song is still getting sung in and nothing very much has settled down yet.

One of the techniques we used was shifting the opening phrase into different keys. This served its usual function of disrupting habit and making people listen afresh. It also gave us some very useful diagnostic information about the relationship between tuning and tessitura – the voices were staying in tune much more readily in some keys than others. This told us that vocal technique was implicated in the pitch loss as well as musicianship, which will usefully inform the ongoing rehearsal process.

Much of our work was delving into the nitty gritty of the arrangement, gluing the detail together to make sense of it. We worked in short chunks – a phrase or two at most – so we could home in on details of note accuracy (which was better than they were giving themselves credit for) and rhythm (which needed a bit of sharpening-up).

The great thing about this kind of work is that, not only does the intensive repetition build confidence quickly, it also allows you move through technical work and right into expressive detail. This is not only more rewarding for the singers, but it is also helpful: it is easier to retain musical shape when it is invested with meaning than when you are experiencing it at a purely technical level.

Something I love about this kind of coaching is sharing the arranging process. Why I chose this particular chord, why the rhythm is syncopated here but straight there, how I’ve voiced a chord to facilitate its balance. I get to share all my nerdery, and at the same make myself useful, as there’s nothing like knowing why a detail is as it is to make it easier to sing.

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