Coaching

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.

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.

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.

Friday Morning Frisson

FrissonThe morning after my evening with Strictly A Cappella, I had the opportunity to work with a mixed quartet from within the group called Frisson. The morning was fresher than the night before, so maybe one shouldn’t be so impressed to encounter as good an integrity of pitch in the sub-group as in the main ensemble, but it would seem churlish not to mention it.

One of the things that this tonal reliability facilitates is the capacity to drop into songs at (almost) any point, and focus your attention on just that bit you want to work on without a distracting run-up to it. There’s just much less cognitive overhead in finding your place if you share an implicit trust in where your tonal centre is rather than having to listen out for it and adjust to it anew each time you start to sing.

Strictly A Cappella

StrictlyI spent a hot and sticky Thursday night down in Radlett with Strictly A Cappella. We were working on bringing out the musical detail in a pleasantly varied range of songs – from Queen, to Duke Ellington, from Diana Ross to gospel. The heat and the closeness of the atmosphere make it all the more impressive to note that this is an ensemble that maintained absolute integrity of tonal centre all evening.

Their rehearsal room is quite small and quite lively, which for many vocal/choral genres can be dangerous – the risk is that people will get used to making a large resonant sound with the help of the walls and ceiling rather than with their own singing technique. But for a moderately large contemporary a cappella group like this, it actually makes their job harder. Much of their music benefits from quite intricate textures, and singing it in a space like that forces everyone to work much harder a keeping it clean and tight, so you don’t lose all the detail in the wash of sound.

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