8-Parter Project: Thoughts on Balance and Voicing

Having walked through the differences in range and characteristic vocal behaviours of the respective singers SSAATTBB versus M&F quartet textures, it is time to consider the implications for how we combine them into harmony. This is the bit where I’m finding, so far, the greatest tension between the idea of two discrete ensembles in combination and a single, 8-part texture.

First, a basic principle of voicing. Generally, you want the notes lower down in the chord to be spaced wider apart than those higher up in the chord. This is true not just of a cappella writing, but tonal music in general: having spent my formative years as a pianist, my left hand is actually bigger than my right, due to having perpetually to reach wider spans with it.

This is both relative and absolute. In both male and female barbershop textures, you’ll generally have the tenor tucked in tighter to the top of the chord, and the bass a bit further away in open voicings, and you’ll tend to avoid closed voicings in lower tessituras.

The Telfordaires Feedback Protocol

This post started out as a document to share with participants on the Telfordaires’ Learn to Sing in Harmony Course, which runs until mid-February 2020. When I was trying to decide whether to distribute it as an attachment to our weekly email of follow-up resources or as a link to a shared drive where we have some other learning materials, I realised that in fact a link to a blog post would be easier than either. And there’s nothing here that we don’t mind sharing with the rest of the singing world, so why not be generous with our ideas?

During the rehearsal process, we like to make opportunities for singers to listen all or part of the chorus and give feedback on what they've heard. One situation for this is the activity from Week 3 of the course we call 'voicework', where we break down the music into individual sections and duets to focus on how people are using their voices. Another is coming up in Week 4, where we'll use internal coaches to rehearse the whole group singing together. (‘Internal coaches’ are coaches from within the chorus, as opposed to bringing in external experts to coach us as we do a couple of times a year.)

In all cases, the idea of sharing round the opportunity to give feedback is that every person who participates in singing harmony comes with a lifetime’s experience and insight from their enjoyment of music, and these responses can help us all grow as musicians and performers. You learn different things by standing out and thinking about what the music needs than you do from inside it singing, and we all learn different things from hearing different people's perspectives.

8-Parter Project: The Nature of the Ensemble

So, having thought about how different types of song persona play out in a mixed 8-part ensemble, it is time to think about the nature of that ensemble, in the first instance with a single-persona song. The process of revisiting my chart of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ from 2008 (coming soon to Sheet Music Plus) has got me reflecting on how an SSAATTBB group (or SATB divisi as it turns out easier to say in conversation) is quite a different animal from combined male and female barbershop ensembles, whether quartet or chorus.

Back in 2008 I was clearly thinking about SSAATTBB for this chart, and it is interesting to see how certain decisions I made back then signal it very clearly. In the process of revising it, I have deliberately chosen to recraft for combined barbershop groups, and this post articulates some of the ways in which the two formats of 8-part group differ. A later post will go on to reflect on balance and voicing.

How shall we deal with Spontaneous Gesture?*

My thoughts on researching gesture, in response to a question at the research day at Dublin City University in November, produced, during the process of writing them down, two more things that needed thinking about. Such is the process of writing. The point that the kind of spontaneous, intuitive gestures that are the most interesting bits of conducting are not, by definition, subject to self-aware control, presents two practical problems. Well, at least two; I may think of more as I write today!

First is the point that varying the physical form of conducting gestures clearly does make a difference to choral sound, and that investigating the nature of these differences is clearly a useful area for choral research. How, then, might one devise a method to focus on this?

Second, is the question for teaching conducting of the relationship between spontaneous gesture and habit. What comes intuitively may or may not be helpful to singers. I spend a good deal of my life teaching conductors in trying to help them adjust habitual motions (often involving multiple body parts and/or extraneous tension) that are getting in the way of either the musical clarity of the gestures or the singers’ vocal production. The reason it is so hard to make these changes is that they are part and parcel of the conductors’ established modes of musical thought.

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