A Cappella

Coaching The Chaos Theory

The Chaos Theory, with Floddy the HippoThe Chaos Theory, with Floddy the HippoSunday brought the delightfully-named quartet The Chaos Theory to Birmingham for a day’s coaching. Like several of the groups I am seeing in September, they’re preparing for the LABBS/European Convention in Bournemouth next month, and what looks set to be a tightly-contested (and thus – speaking as an audience member – very enjoyable) quartet contest.

Given the point in the performance-preparation cycle, we were focusing on similar themes to other groups aiming for that event – moving beyond the technical into artistry.

One of the things that most struck me when I was new to barbershop was the astonishing stylistic consistency of contest material – and of course that was one of the points of contest-grade barbershop, to preserve and specialise in certain stylistic thumbprints. The downside of this consistency is the risk that it all starts to sound much the same. The upside is that when an arranger who understands that harmonic language in great depth works with a song that defies those expectations, you can find yourself with a musical narrative that has immense power to engage that specialist audience.

Refining Delivery with Red Rock Harmony

Enjoying the power of the Power PoseEnjoying the power of the Power PoseSaturday took me to Teignmouth to work with my friends from Red Rock Harmony on the songs they are preparing for next months LABBS/European Convention in Bournemouth in Bournemouth. This included the ballad I had worked on intensively during my last visit in July, plus an up-tempo number. With six weeks to go the focus was on refining performances from both technical and artistic perspectives, and on getting the handover from Manager to Communicator well underway.

One theme we explored was the distinction between local and global shaping, between the nuances of delivery within the phrase, and the sculpting of the various expressive worlds at different stages of a song’s form. The chorus was already producing the former intuitively as they responded to lyric and melody, but they needed more of a large-scale structure for these to work within.

Strictly Frisson

Strictlysep17I’m amalgamating my write-ups of Thursday evening’s and Friday morning’s coaching sessions because I’m just coming into a bit of a busy patch, and if I blogged about each of September’s adventures separately I might not catch up with myself until November! And it makes a certain amount of sense to consider my visits to Strictly A Cappella and Frisson together, since all of the latter are members of the former, and we found ourselves dealing with some overlapping themes between the two sessions.

Readers with good memories may remember that I worked with both these ensembles back in July. (And, totally coincidentally, that trip also continued on down to Devon to work with Red Rock chorus – but more of that anon.) And two months is long enough to hear a difference in a group that has been working on consolidating the work done in a previous coaching session.

Choosing Repertoire in the Era of Post-Dixie Barbershop

The discussions about how and to what extent barbershop as a genre and as a community moves away from repertoire that glorifies the Old South is ongoing, and likely to continue for some time. This post is about the more practical question of working out which of the songs in the established barbershop repertoire are likely to be problematic.

I’m assuming that it’s mostly people outside the US who need to walk through this. We have imported a genre, and through mastering its craft have allied ourselves with a worldwide family with whom we identify and share emotional, cognitive and visceral patterns of being. But the repertoire we have imported along with these ways of being doesn’t always bring all of its meanings with it.

Expressive GraceNotes

The obligatory warm-up picThe obligatory warm-up pic

I spent Saturday with my friends at the chorus formerly known as Brunel Harmony, working with them on their songs for the LABBS/European Convention next month. Since I last saw them, they have not only acquired their new chorus name, GraceNotes, but have established considerably more control over their consistency of technique. Our task was thus to marry vocal craft and choreography back to meaning to free them up to express the songs.

The primary vocal element that needed focused attention was reasserting control over breath points. There was a clear plan in place, but the extra cognitive load of adding choreography had resulted in extraneous breaths creeping in. The problem wasn’t that the singers couldn’t sustain the phrases (with perhaps one exception discussed below), but that the part of the brain that would remember when to breathe was too busy remembering the moves.

Improvising with Moseley Folk

View from down to the main stagesView from down to the main stages

Actually, I was improvising with folk from all over, including some local to Moseley, in a workshop at Moseley Folk Festival on Saturday afternoon. The festival has been held in a park literally minutes away from my house in early September for the past 12 years, but this is the first time I have actually been involved in it. Indeed, quite often I’m out and about during this weekend – September is often a busy coaching season – so it was quite a novelty both to be in town for the festival and to have work I could walk to.

I had been approached to lead a workshop on the back of the workshops I’d led with Magenta during the Moseley Festival* over the years. But that format – learn a brand new arrangement in an afternoon – wasn’t going to work for this situation for various reasons. They needed something rather shorter than those musically ambitious events took, and that could be adapted for whatever random number and mix of people who chose to come along. So we went for a cappella improvisation.

A Dedication of Directors

Director Faculty in actionDirector Faculty in action

There was some discussion after last Saturday’s education day for LABBS chorus directors as to what the collective noun for directors was. We had lots of good suggestions, but I am going with ‘a dedication’ for now because of the way our delegates embraced the preparation we had set for the practical activities with such commitment, resulting in one of the most musically in-depth experiences I have yet managed to orchestrate in a single day.

The coaching model we used was devised, in the first instance, to answer the question as to how to offer practical skills training to lots of people with the resources we had available, You can teach a discussion-based class to a room of 70 people and it works, but hands-on skills need individual attention. In the process, it also answered another question of practical training I have been grappling with – how to develop directors’ musicianship skills. You can communicate ideas in a day, but musicianship takes ongoing work to flourish.

Carving Out an Interpretation with Red Rock Harmony

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.

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