A Cappella

Soapbox: Allocating Parts for Emotional Damage

soapboxIn SATB music, it’s relatively easy figure out which part people should sing if they don’t already know. The texture is built around a divide by sex, with a split between higher and lower voices in each. So you just see what kind of range someone has, and slot them in where the notes they have and the notes the music needs coincide. Some people (counter-tenors, female tenors) defy the first part, but the stratification by range still works, so the model as a whole presents safe a generalisation of how to go about things.

One of the defining characteristics of barbershop music is that the parts are all much less differentiated by range (there’s a clue in the description ‘close-harmony’). Thus, most people can readily sing at least two of the parts, usually three, sometimes all four. You’d think this would take some of the pressure off the decision-making process of part-allocation, but in fact it seems more often to intensify the reliance on social stereotyping in identifying parts.

8-Parter Project: Reflections on Process

All of a sudden I find myself over halfway through the time I set aside for my project to explore arranging in eight parts. In some ways it feels like I have hardly started – it’s not fair that the time should have passed so quickly! – but then I also notice that I have completed 4 arrangements from scratch, reworked an older one, and have a small collection of sketches and part-done trials, at least one of which I intend to return to and finish. So things seem to have been moving.

In the last month of course I have been in a state of almost continual distraction as life has reconfigured itself around a global pandemic. When we stopped going out to do things with other people, we imagined that would give us all extra time to get on with our other projects. But it turns out that having to rethink all your automated habits takes a huge amount of cognitive capacity, never mind the work involved in taking rehearsals online. And the anxiety.

A Virtual Visit to Ocean City

In place of my usual warm-up pics, a screen-grab...In place of my usual warm-up pics, a screen-grab...

It’s a good 3-4 hours by train to Plymouth, so previous visits in that direction have usually been for a whole weekend, sometimes taking in multiple ensembles in the South-West en route. Tuesday evening I popped down for an hour or so, in one of the silver linings of taking rehearsals online. Ocean City Sound had warmed up before I arrived, and continued their evening after I had left – including, I understand, welcoming another visitor, this time BABS Chair Martin Bagelow.

We divided the hour into three sets of activities, aiming to maximise engagement. When you’re all together in a room together, the context binds you together and the novelty of a visiting coach sharpens the concentration. When you’re all logging in from your own homes it takes a lot more cognitive input to stay connected with the virtual activity, so there’s much more need to be structured about it and to refresh attention with changes of task.

8-Parter Project: Managing Texture

Texture has been a recurrent question in my various musings so far on arranging for combined male and female barbershop ensembles, as it is implicated in so many different aspects of the craft. How you conceive the ensemble, for example, and how you manage the mapping of song persona(s) onto performing people.

But it is also presents questions in its own right: beyond how it contributes to the way you make musical meaning, how do you make it sound any good?

Having eight parts of course offers textural opportunities you don’t get with only four. I would not have attempted to arrange Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Right Here Right Now’ for a normal barbershop ensemble, but have had a lot of fun exploring the layering, and antiphonal interchange, of different motifs for a version that is singable live and unamplified.

Remote Rehearsing: Can We Sing Together?

I will stop blogging about remote rehearsing all the time in due course. It’s just that when a lot of us are learning a lot in a short time is when it is useful to share ideas. You can wait a bit longer to hear how the 8-part arranging project is going (quite well, btw).

So, the question that everyone always wants to ask is: can we actually do any singing together in an online choral rehearsal? You, know, like the definition of ‘choral’ would regard as pretty much essential. And the answer is usually no: there’s too much lag, sorry.

Like everyone else doing this lark, I came away from my first remote rehearsal both incredibly buoyed up by having been able to do it at all, and craving harmony. So we did some experimenting in our Music Team meeting that was fortuitously already scheduled for that week, and found ourselves some improvements for our next chorus night.

8-Parter Project: The Cost-per-Wear Problem

One of the practical issues facing a chorus or quartet planning to join with another for a joint piece on a particular performance is that it needs rehearsing properly to bring it to the stage, but you don’t get nearly so much performance use out of it, unless the two ensembles are appearing together regularly. 8-parter, double-ensemble pieces are inherently expensive of rehearsal time on a cost-per-wear basis.

Hence, one of the challenges I set myself during my exploration of this form is to discover whether it is possible to produce an 8-part, double ensemble chart in which the parts for each separate ensemble are also musically complete in their own right. It would be much more useful, after all, if you could both learn a song in parts that fit your own range properly, use it in your regular performance programme, and then sing it together at joint events.

Thoughts on Performance and Skill-Development

Over the autumn and winter I found myself teaching two courses designed to bring relative novices up to a decent foundational level of skill. One was the Initial conducting course for the Association of British Choral Directors that took place on four Saturdays in Newcastle between October and February. The other was the Learn to Sing in Harmony course hosted by the Telfordaires for 90 minutes each week on our first six rehearsals of the new year.

I found myself having the same conversation with more than one person on each of these courses, where they would remark that they had practised at home and were confident they could do a particular musical task, but when came to the next session it suddenly became much harder. In the former case, it was about how the beat patterns for 2, 3 and 4 seem simple until you add other things them like cueing, or indeed listening to the singers you are leading at the same time. In the latter, it was about how you can sing your part perfectly well by yourself, but it becomes a lot harder when you add the other three parts into the mix.

8-Parter Project: Double Quartet or Double Chorus?

Having considered the nature of the 8-part ensemble from the perspective of genre (SATB divisi versus combined male and female barbershop ensembles), we also need to consider the question of whether we’re thinking about combined choruses or quartets, i.e. whether we have one person or several people singing each part.

This is something I’ve thought about in general terms, and I was interested to look back and see that it also was all the way back in 2009 that I first wrote about it, and moreover that my thoughts were relatively underdeveloped back then. I’ve done a lot more thinking since about the nature of doubling: how you can move more flexibly between different numbers of sounding lines when you have a multiple voices per part than you can with one-a-part textures. This was something I particularly enjoyed with Magenta; in a group where we all sang different parts for different songs, we could move seamlessly between unisons, duets and full harmonies because we were all accustomed to blending with different combinations of voices as a matter of course.

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