Arranging

Exploring New Music with Signature

There is a reason I chose this warm-up pic...There is a reason I chose this warm-up pic...

A week after the extravaganza of new music that was the LABBS/European Barbershop Convention, I was off to start work on one of next year’s offerings. Signature Singers recently commissioned an arrangement from me to bring to contest in 2018, and Saturday was the first of several planned sessions to start work on it together.

Signature have been operating without a director since the start of 2017, and whilst they are still on the lookout for an appropriate person to take on that role (hint: if that’s you, get in touch with them), they have decided not to let the absence of a director stop them from making music now, and from making plans for music in the future. So, Plan A is to take this music to Convention next year with a director appointed in the interim; Plan B is to take this music to Convention without a director.

The Biggest Barbershop Bash in Europe

Last year's LABBS champions closing the monumental two-day chorus contestLast year's LABBS champions closing the monumental two-day chorus contest

Well, where to start on reflecting on the four days of Europe’s best barbershop that just took place in Bournemouth? I was very touched when several people during the event said they were looking forward to this write-up, but now of course I am all anxious about disappointing them! (Just trust the process, Liz – follow the thoughts where they lead you and some people will also be interested – the ones who aren’t will find their needs met elsewhere. Pep talk over.)

I have been looking forward to this event for months. LABBS Convention is my regular autumn party, the British women’s association being the organisation I joined when I first encountered barbershop, in which I was a contest judge for many years, and for whom I now serve as Chorus Director Development Specialist. I have a lot of friends there, and work with a good many groups to develop the performances they bring to the event.

Thoughts on Phnerting

swipeYou know when you wake up before your alarm, and it’s not really worth going back to sleep again but neither can you be bothered to get up just yet? That’s when thoughts turn to the curious expressive power of the phnert.

Regular readers may remember that phnert is the term coined by Lori Lyford to mean the sonority of a major 2nd and the particular effect it has on harmonic direction. It is useful to know as a singer, as it tells you how to relate to the other note in the phnert: you need to lean into it, and collaborate to make sure it’s balanced. It’s like squirting a lemon pip out between thumb and forefinger: both digits need to be equally and actively involved if you are to get any real propulsion.

My morning musings covered the following miscellaneous areas:

On Singing All the Lines

It was almost 7 years ago when I wrote in detail about Making Parts into Lines. At the time I had just been working on the Mary Poppins set for Cottontown Chorus, and it remains a landmark moment in my development as an arranger. Not just because this was the first time any of my arrangements had won a contest gold, but because the process of working through the technical and artistic detail gave me musical insights that have informed my work ever since.

This was also the place where I first articulated the performer’s two roles – as Manager and Communicator – which have become very useful concepts in my coaching as well as my arranging.

Raising the Game with Amersham A Cappella

amershamjun17

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!)

Belles of Three Sessions

Working on back width...Working on back width...I had an action-packed day on Saturday with the Belles of Three Spires, with three quite different types of coaching activity.

We started off with the kind of music coaching you’d expect as a matter of course at this stage of the rehearsal calendar. They are learning a new (to them) song to take to contest in the autumn, and I was there to help them bring out the musical shape and expressive detail.

They had asked me to come and work with them in particular because it happened to be one of my arrangements, but, interestingly, the coaching process is much the same as it is when I coach other people’s music. It’s still a process of identifying the role of various musical features in the overall narrative, to help the singers bring out texture and meaning. It’s just slightly more efficient, since for the parts where I think, ‘What’s going on there then?’ I have a pretty good idea already.

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.

Arranging Processes

Every so often somebody will ask me how long it takes to do an arrangement, and I invariably find it a difficult question to answer. The headline answer is usually 2-4 weeks, depending on what else is going on in my life. But that’s just the time elapsed between starting work in earnest and delivering a completed chart, which isn’t the same as how long I spend working on it.

The more detailed answer is that it is impossible to say, as the distinction between working on an arrangement and not working on an arrangement isn’t very clear cut. (This is a specific instance of the observation that to talk about work/life balance assumes you can tell which is which.) Anyone who has been involved with practical music-making is familiar with the way your brain keeps processing the music you are working on between rehearsals and practice sessions. I may only spend an hour or two at a time actually sat at the piano or the computer, but the effectiveness and productivity of those sessions absolutely relies on my brain’s ruminations in between them.

And it turns out that this background processing isn’t just a continual, generalised mulling. I have gradually become aware of certain types of musical problem-solving emerging in quite specific circumstances:

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