A Cappella

Raising the Game with Amersham A Cappella

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One of the many things I love about my life is the opportunity to both arrange for and coach skilled and up-for-it ensembles. I mentioned my recent arrangement for Amersham A Cappella that they performed at BABS Convention recently when I was reflecting on the quality of lit-up-ness. When I went down to see them on Tuesday to work with them on another new chart, this one destined for the European Convention in October, that excitement was evident again.

(I am sure I have mentioned before how excited I am about the range of new arrangements LABBS choruses will be showcasing to our European visitors this autumn. As well as the four of mine due for premiere, I know of one by Debi Cox and two by Heather Lane due to be unveiled – though all I know about the last two is that they exist. It’s going to be a long contest, but it’s not going to be dull!)

Thoughts on the Shapes of Events

Since the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention the other week, I’ve been mulling about the emotional shape of events, and what happens when you make changes to them. The specific case is the addition of the Mixed Chorus contest to the last day of the BABS Convention in the last two years, the day after what has traditionally been the emotional focal point of the event, the Quartet Final on Sunday afternoon.

A friend remarked that it felt a bit like the end of Wimbledon, when the men’s final had finished but the mixed doubles were still playing. I think this is an interesting comparison, not least because it captures the sense in both that the mixed genre has lower status.

There are several things that create this sense of being secondary, many of which derive from the timetabling, which does directly disadvantage the participating ensembles. They have a much smaller audience than the other contests, for example, as many people leave on the Sunday night. It is also the only contest not to be followed by an afterglow, which means that the participants don’t get to network with each other very much, or get integrated into the wider barbershop community.

Reflections on BABS 2017 Convention

We go to these beautiful places and spend the whole weekend inside: Just as well the music is good....We go to these beautiful places and spend the whole weekend inside: Just as well the music is good....

As usual, I spent the last weekend in May at the second largest barbershop event outside America. (Well, usually it’s the largest, but the European Convention in October is going to be a doozy this year.)

It was the first BABS Convention since the introduction of the new Performance Category into the judging system. In many ways, this change is completing shift in ethos started when the Presentation Category replaced the old Stage Presence and Interpretation categories back in the 1990s, so it represents a development rather than a step change. But the difference it is making is already perceptible in the performance choices people are making.

What I was expecting less, though, was the effect that the change has had on my experience as an audience member. I found myself less patient than previously with performances that I found mechanical or contrived. It made me realise how much I have been in the habit of forgiving certain habits or mannerisms or skill deficits as simply normal for the genre and not therefore to be worried about.

Rehearsing Efficently with Bristol A Cappella Music Team

As I reported a while back, as well as spending two days coaching the full chorus at Bristol A Cappella at the end of April, I also had a two-hour session with their music team in the evening.

In some ways this was a rather over-ambitious programme of activities. We had an hour between finishing one session and starting the next, and a change of venue also probably helped refresh our attention, but we were nonetheless all pretty tired when we reconvened.

But notwithstanding these hurdles, the timing offered advantages that wouldn’t have been available on a stand-alone session. We had a shared experience during the day we could point back to for examples, and we made explicit use of this at the start by going through a structured reflection process based on my conductors’ four questions.

Blonde Ambition

Thanks to the quartet for sending a pic since I forgot to take one!Thanks to the quartet for sending a pic since I forgot to take one!I spent a chunk of the May Day bank holiday with Blonde Ambition quartet. When they first booked the coaching session, it was with the intention of preparing for LABBS prelims in June, but due to an administrative mishap, they will not now be competing this year. The bright side of this is that we could do all kinds of deep work on building technique and working methods that you would never undertake a few weeks ahead of a big performance.

There were two main areas we addressed. First, the intake of breath. Their general approach to breath management was pretty good – they were engaging their support well to produce a nicely resonant and focused sound – but the moment of inhalation was inserting a couple of obstacles into the process. One was a tendency to lift the top of the chest, which introduced some tension and stopped the breath sitting as deeply as it could. The other was a tendency to lift the chin slightly as a result of a slight contraction of the muscles in the back of the neck, which prevented a truly silent breath. (Alexander Technique practitioners would know this as ‘pulling down’.)

Exploring Resonance and Emotion with Bristol A Cappella

Another warm-up shot: "Bananas of the world unite!"Another warm-up shot: "Bananas of the world unite!"I spent the first two days of the bank-holiday weekend with my friends at Bristol A Cappella. We had two full days for coaching the chorus, plus a two-hour session on the Saturday night for music-team training. One of the (many) triumphs of the weekend was pacing it so that we were still capable or productive work during the final hour of Sunday!

Another challenge is working out exactly what to blog about, since by definition when you have considerably more time together than usual, you have considerably more eventful and interesting things to think about on the way home. And considerably less brain with which to do the thinking, come to that.

Manspreading and Silly Games with Bristol A Cappella

The traditional warm-up pic: this time with buntingThe traditional warm-up pic: this time with bunting

Saturday took me down to Bristol for the first of two visits this month to my friends at Bristol A Cappella. We started the day doing some detail work on an arrangement of Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s My Life’ by their director Iain Hallam.

Part of the process of balancing a complex texture is increasing the awareness of those singing the accompanying parts of how the whole fits together. But there’s also a certain tone quality you want from the melody to assert itself through the complexity. We found this partly through technical means (getting the resonance onto the teeth), but also through the more holistic concept of manspreading.

You know how when you sit on a train with a shared armrest and the bloke next to you inhabits it all, with his elbow poking into your space? And with his knees all splayed outwards so they protrude into where your legs should go? That’s manspreading. I had heard of a particularly egregious form of it recently in a facebook conversation about someone who had used both hand dryers in a public toilet, one for each hand.

Spring Fest 2017

4 of the 5 tutors for the day4 of the 5 tutors for the day

Last Sunday saw my third consecutive year as a tutor for the A Cappella Spring Fest at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot. The day took a similar shape to the previous years, with a plenary warm-up followed by themed classes and workshops in the morning, then afternoon rehearsals in a variety of a cappella genres, culminating in performances where we all shared our efforts.

I was leading the Contemporary A Cappella stream again this year, but with the added amenity of vocal percussion. Andy Frost from the Magnets ran two general workshops on beatboxing in the morning, and then during the afternoon coached a small group to add a vocal percussion part to Ben Bram’s arrangement of ‘Uptown Funk’.

It is a moderately challenging arrangement – though we had cut it down somewhat, given the short rehearsal time available – but participants took it well in their stride. It helps that the intricate parts that need rather more attention to get right come back at several points in the arrangement, so you feel it is worth investing the time in them, as you’ll get plenty of use out of that work. The passages aren’t expensive on a cost-per-sing basis, so to speak.

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