Carving Out an Interpretation with Red Rock Harmony

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This shot just gives an inkling of the amazing rehearsal venueThis shot just gives an inkling of the amazing rehearsal venue

After my coaching sessions last week with Strictly A Cappella and Frisson, I headed down to Devon to work with my friends at Red Rock Harmony in Teignmouth. One of the things that is pleasing about repeat visits to a group is to hear how they have improved since you last heard them, and it was lovely to be able to remark on how much more vocally secure they are sounding than last autumn. And this was my third day in a row of groups with pitch integrity. It is a wonderful thing when you can trust the technique and just get on with the music.

For music was our task. The chorus are in the process of learning one of my arrangements, commissioned by another group a couple of years back, but as Red Rock Harmony have joined LABBS since its one and only previous contest performance, they are approaching it as if a brand new chart. My job was to work with them on the delivery, finding the fluidity flow of a barbershop ballad within the black-and-white dots on the page.

As a coach – whether working your own chart or someone else’s – there’s always a delicate balance to be struck between asserting what the music needs, and leaving appropriate space for the performers to exercise their own creativity. Ultimately, the performers are the ones who have to deliver the song, so whatever shaping you suggest to them has to fit in with their patterns of feeling. Equally, of course, they need to match their patterns of feeling to the musical shape if it is to make sense to the audience. It takes a sustained exercise in intelligent empathy on everyone’s part to make this happen, and we all ended up feeling both exhausted and very satisfied with the process and its results.

Red Rock’s director, Judith, has an intuitive sense for harmonic moments that will respond to rubato, and a very natural way of shaping them. The issue in the first instance was that she had yet to decide which of the multiple possible moments to dally over, and was tending to dally over too many of them. Each was beautiful, but the flow of the narrative was getting too attenuated by lingering over them all. So we had some bigger-picture work to do to identify where the phrases needed space to breathe, and where they needed connecting together to build the narrative. Sometimes you need to stop lingering and apply some swooshy-throughiness. (I am affronted that my spell-checker doesn’t appear to know that technical term.)

Another challenge was in coordinating the parts in patterns of overlapping embellishment in the context of a flexible metre. In strict rhythm it’s easy – everyone just aligns to the beat and it all slots in. But when your beats are of variable duration, you need a deeper understanding of how your part fits in with the whole, and we explored several different methods to achieve this.

In some places, there was one part that was conspicuously more active than the others, so here I suggested Jude focus her directing on that part, with the others aligning to it – that way no details fell by the wayside. In another, we had everyone speak through all the entries in turn, so that everyone got the hang of shaping the overall passage, and it was easier to follow and thus slot in to the whole when we went back to singing it in parts.

Another time, when there were distinct things going on in the lead and the combined harmony parts, we got everyone involved in conducting gesture. Each musical element was assigned a hand: literally, on the one hand we have the tune, and on the other we have the accompaniment. I first demonstrated how they worked together, and then had everyone copy while we spoke it through. This exercise is useful not just because it gives a director the opportunity practise a moment that takes some physical coordination to achieve, but also because it means that all singers have an embodied understanding of how it works when they see it directed.

The converse of this technique removed the director from the equation entirely and had the chorus facing each other to coordinate their singing as they would if singing tags together. They discovered that they had to take much more ownership over the flow of the music this way, rather than waiting for someone else to signal when to move on. And as they became more proactive, they discovered how much negotiation this takes – if someone moves faster, you have to go with them, but equally, if someone isn’t moving on, you mustn’t leave them behind.

This exercise gave me a renewed insight and appreciation to the deep musicianship training that goes on in corners and stairwells during afterglows. It also served to reset and refresh the conductor-choir bond. Once Jude started directing again, she had a much more ready response from the singers as they had become accustomed to moving together with the music, rather than waiting to be led.

One area in which I was quite assertive was in breathing patterns. As an arranger I spend a good deal of time figuring this out, and can thus tell people that particular places really need the lines to connect through and know that it will work. When I tell people, ‘sing through there,’ there will always be an, ‘and you can breathe here instead,’ to offer in exchange.

And the point of connecting these phrases together wasn’t just musical, though it was often in part to do with the lie of the lines. It was also about sincerity of expression. You sing with a different level of expressive power if, rather than singing with the thought at the back of your mind that you can always sneak an extra breath in somewhere, you commit to singing through a complete idea.

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