Coaching Micro and Macro with Capital Connection

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CapCon17The weekend after my visit to Bristol A Cappella took me, first, down to London to work with my friends at Capital Connection. (The second part of my tour, to Norwich, follows in a subsequent post.) We were working on a contest package that they had originally planned for LABBS Convention 2016, but which they had subsequently decided needed a longer development phase, so they will be taking it to this year’s European Convention instead.

One of my hopes for this convention is that all our international visitors will think, ‘Gosh, they’re doing interesting music in LABBS,’ and Capital are contributing to this ambition with the contest premiere of an arrangement by their director Debi Cox. Coaching an arrangement directed by its arranger is strangely very like coaching any other arrangement – the same process of music analysis and performance diagnosis – except that when you point out to the singers, ‘That’s a nice bit of arranging there,’ the person you are praising actually gets to hear and appreciate the compliment.

Our work looked at both big-picture issues and the nitty-gritty detail. The overall concept of the musical shaping was, unsurprisingly, working with a clear sense of vision, but I had some music-analytical work to do helping Debi clarify some decisions about how they were going to manage the visual plan so as to work to best effect in tandem with the musical structures.

And whilst that took up a good deal of our afternoon’s attention, it’s not going to take up much of this blog post, as it’s quite hard to write about meaningfully whilst concealing the substance from you. If I tell you that we were working with the concepts of set-up and reveal, you’ll realise why it’s important I don’t tell you too much just yet. Consider this part of the set-up for their performance in October.

The micro-focus is easier to write about in the abstract. Much of it consisted of teasing out details of harmony. In some places they just needed putting under the microscope to give the singers space to tune into the sonority and let their intuitive response to harmony make those minute adjustments to balance and tuning that bring a nicely-sung chord alive.

In other places, it was teasing out what a chord was doing within the phrase, and letting the clarification of meaning clarify the sound. Capital Connection operates with a considerable depth of musicianship as well as vocal craft, and so any chord that doesn’t come into focus is as likely to be a symptom of uncertainty as to its function in the musical narrative. Once they feel why a chord is there, they will reliably lock it into place.

Towards the end of the day, we found ourselves exploring the nature of the conductor-choir bond. The chorus responds to their director with great nuance, but sometimes rather passively. We used to the metaphor of gearing to start to shift this balance. When you are in first gear, you have to pedal quite hard to get down the road – it’s safe, but unremarkable. As you travel up through the gears, it takes fewer turns of the pedals to travel the same distance, and you do so with greater efficiency and aplomb.

Getting the singers to respond more actively – in a higher gear – opens up all kinds of opportunities for artistic growth. It frees up capacity in their director to develop both more control and more expressive range, and the reduction in her physical exertion will help the whole chorus’s musical stamina. Asking the singers to ‘amplify’ rather than simply mirror Debi also brought an extra layer of vibrancy to the sound, and this at a late stage of the afternoon when you’d have thought nobody had very much left in the tank.

I shall enjoy reflecting on the nature of this causal connection – for now it is merely an observation that I am sharing because it may be useful for any other directors who find themselves needing to adjust the dynamic between their gestures and their singers’ voices.

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