A Cappella

David Wright’s List of Key Changes

One of the subjects that came up at the arrangers’ day with David Wright back in August, unsurprisingly, was key changes. In fact, it came up each time we studied a chart that included one, and so David periodically gathered together the threads to give us an overview of the range of possibilities we had explored so far. And once I had likewise gathered them together in my notes, it looked like the kind of list to share.

So, here are four ways that came up that day to get into a new key:

Workshopping with Just Voices

Warm-up action shot!Warm-up action shot!

I spent the weekend down in the second most eastward point of the UK, where Just Voices had convened to hold a weekend’s retreat in Broadstairs. We structured it as two one-day workshops on contrasting themes, but addressing a common core of pieces from their repertoire.

Saturday saw us focusing on the singers as musicians, with a bespoke workshop on Aural Skills for Choral Groups, while Sunday took our attention back out onto the audience with the theme Perform with Panache. We had slightly less time at our disposal on Sunday, though, so we compensated for that by taking the opportunity of the Saturday evening together to prime some ideas to be working on overnight.

Am I Arranging in Time?

question markOne of the early topics I dealt with in this blog is to consider what arrangers can do to help people sing their music in tune. My listening experiences in recent years have had me thinking about the ways arrangers help or hinder singers in singing well in rhythm.

This is a particular issue for barbershop arrangers, who are working in a genre that on the one hand is quite self-aware about having a rather shaky relationship with rhythm and on the other has taken to syncopation and other forms of rhythmic complexity as an index of coolness. Arrangers pile push-beats on triplets to make the music wiggle its hips and thereby prove that they are sexy and clever rather than simply nerds (music theory geeks) amongst nerds (barbershoppers in general).

Motivating the Moves with the Chordettes

chordettessep18Sunday took me down to Devon to revisit the Chordettes in the run up to their contest performance at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention next month. In the three months since I last saw them they have embedded many of the things we worked on back in June, especially their bubbling embouchure and bucket-cup-teaspoon breathing, and were ready to move onto coaching more focused on the audience experience in anticipation of bringing their songs to the stage.

Sculpting a Story with Bristol A Cappella

Traditional warm-up picTraditional warm-up picI spent last Sunday with my friends at Bristol A Cappella helping them in their preparation for the Irish Association of Barbershop Singers Convention next month. As with my last visit, they had spent the previous day with Sandra Lea-Riley working on the Performance dimension of the package, which this time included the most ambitious choreography the group have embarked on to date.

Sandra had helped them refine their concepts and sharpen up their execution, but at the point I arrived they still needed more time on it to get it embedded. My remit was therefore to help them reconnect their visual performance with their vocal performance.

Exploring Character and Narrative in Norwich

NHsep18

I spent Saturday with my friends at Norwich Harmony further developing the contest set I had last worked with them on back in May. Unsurprisingly, given the elapsed time between visits, we could now build on the work we did last time on rhythm and harmony to explore how these elements contributed to the communicative dimensions of characterisation and story-telling.

We approached their up-tempo number as if it were a movie. Some songs strongly suggest a time, a place and even a filmic genre, and once you locate a song in this way, you have a common fund of imagery and associations that you can all draw on. One of the disadvantages of a cappella is that you don’t have a range of instrumental timbres to enhance the vividness of your performance; the commensurate advantage is that you have the imaginative freedom to build in opulent special effects to your concept without all the fuss of hiring an actual orchestra.

Tag-Singing, Inhabitance, Ratio, and Flow

With thanks to Manoj for the pic: also do check out his tagsWith thanks to Manoj for the pic: also do check out his tags

The two most talked-about chapters of my barbershop book were those on gender and those on tag-singing. Having given a lot of attention to the former theme at Harmony University, I have some thoughts about the latter to share. In particular, how the activity of tag-singing, in its natural habitat, embodies many of the qualities that we were discussing in my classes on Techniques for Effective Rehearsing.

As anyone who has acquired this addiction knows, tag-singing is the secret pleasure of barbershop. It’s not very secret; we don’t purposely hide it away (though small groups of us may go and huddle in a stairwell to create our own private sonic space to enjoy it in). But you wouldn’t know about it by going to public-facing events – it’s what goes on after hours, when the formal activities have finished and people just want to hang out with each other.

David Wright on Arranging

I’m aware I’ve used this title before, but it is just as appropriate 9 years on, for a similar kind of event: 10 or so of the UK’s most active arrangers gathered in a room together with David Wright to do some learning together. I think maybe four of us were the same as last time, and we revisited some of the same themes. But the majority of both the people in the room and the examples we examined were new, so both event and content had a nice balance of continuity and novelty.

David’s general approach to arranging is, not surprisingly, much as I have heard him present before. There’s the concern with structure, with a clear song-map giving the global context in which the detail is developed. There’s the care over symmetry and development in the detail, and a concomitant disapproval of coaches jiggering with details the arranger has placed with care: ‘Getting rid of a swipe is like sawing a leg off a table’.

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