Learning

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.

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.

LABBS Directors Weekend 2018

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I sometimes wonder if the Ronseal approach* to naming the directors’ events we run for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers underplays their sheer wonderfulness. But there’s something grounding in the balance. Just as an elevated conducting gesture really needs to be accompanied by a something that connects with the core/lower body to maintain the equilibrium of the voices, so the greater the extravaganza, the more it benefits from a matter-of-fact title.

For it was an extravaganza. We had practical work for all 50+ delegates, nurtured by our standing directors faculty; we had a rich and varied programme of electives led by 13 of our association’s most successful directors; we had the services of Cheshire Chord Company one day to explore a brand new arrangement being put together for the first time and a Volunteer Chorus the next, representing 60+ music team members and aspiring musical leaders who lent their voices in exchange for the learning experience.

Bucket-list breathing

This is a dual purpose post. Its first aim is to fulfil a request to explain an approach to breathing taught by Jim Henry at the LABBS Directors Weekend 3 years ago for someone who wasn’t at it. Its second is to reflect on my experience teaching that approach to others, from which I have drawn some wider conclusions about teaching.

So, first to the method. Dr Jim called this 1-2-3 breathing, as it focuses your attention to breathing in 3 stages. First, you breathe in down to the bottom of your lungs, letting your waist and lower ribs expand (1), then to the middle of your chest allowing your ribs and mid-back widen (2), then finally top up beneath your breast-bone (3). So far, so good, you think, this will get a nice full, deep breath and prevent clavicular breathing.

The bit I particularly love about this approach, though, comes next: you let the air out (whether breathing or singing) in the same order it came in. So you use the air at the bottom of your lungs first, squeezing your waist in (1), then your mid-chest, allowing your ribs to contract (2), and then use the top-up under the breast-bone last (3). This guarantees that you keep your support in play right to the end of the breath, and prevents that visible deflation of posture you sometimes see towards the ends of phrases.

Soapbox: On Transcending Technique

soapboxWhen I had been lecturing just a few years, I was entertained to look back and notice how my focus had shifted over time.

During the first year, when I was doing everything anew, content was king: structuring lectures, choosing musical examples, figuring out what amongst the infinite possibilities it was most important for my students to learn. During the second year, when I had a stash of content to work from, I was focused on the how rather than the what: the variety of learning activities, reaching different learning styles. During the third year I mostly seemed to obsess about heating and oxygen levels in the classrooms.

This memory came back to me recently as I reflected on a theme I’ve heard reasonably often when experienced musicians are teaching the less experienced.

Reflections from the Recording Studio

I spent all day Easter Saturday with groups of singers in a small recording studio. This was part of a hymn project I’ve been helping a midlands-based church community with for a few months. Hitherto my involvement has been with the full choir, working on vocal techniques and choral craft; this was the first time I’d actually been in the studio with them.

Most of my previous recording experience has been as a singer (or occasionally in a consultant’s role as arranger), so I’m finding it interesting to reflect on how the role of conductor and coach plays out in this context. My previous recording experience has also been with full musical textures and relatively long arcs of musical time, whereas the weekend’s procedure was working with individual sections (or in some cases, half a section at a time), and taking the music in 8- or 16-bar units.

On Unlearning and Relearning Songs

This post is for anyone who has ever learned one part in a song, and then switched to another part at a later date. Learning the new part is one challenge, not getting distracted back onto singing your original part is another one.

I was asked if had any advice on this recently, and I realised that it’s something I have done a good deal, and rarely get the different parts tangled up in my head. So I’m writing this post to work out what strategies I have used to do this, or indeed what strategies I might have wanted to use had I found it harder than I did. I have three main suggestions so far.

Explorations in Musical Shape with Cheshire Chord Company

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After a series of cancellations on Thursday, Friday and Saturday last week due to weather-related travel disruptions, I was delighted finally to be able to fulfil a coaching commitment on Sunday. My friends at Cheshire Chord Company had invited me back to work through a couple of songs they are currently learning.

We spent the morning on barbershop swing standard ‘That’s Life’. This is a classic chart that always comes over enjoyably in performance, but is often quite generalised in its expression. There is, we discovered, a good deal more scope than you might have guessed both for creating a large-scale arc and for finding nuance in the detail.

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