A Cappella

How to Harmonise Missing Downbeats

One of the niche challenges of a cappella arranging is how to handle melodies that feature a rest on the first beat of the bar. The reason this is an issue is that the change of harmony at the start of a bar not only plays a role in supporting the melody and shaping the phrase, but is also the primary means by which we perceive metre.

Interestingly, this is a melodic feature that appears in a variety of rhythmic guises. I’ve come across it arranging in stylistic contexts from reggae tunes like One Love to ballads like Someone to Watch Over me.

Winchester A Cappella Coaching Day

Traditional warm-up shotTraditional warm-up shotI spent Saturday working with Winchester A Cappella chorus on the music they will be taking to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. The chorus welcomed a new director last year after a period of some upheaval, and now that the working relationships are getting nicely settled in they were ready for some external input.

The ballad they are learning is one I arranged for a quartet back in 2011 without intending it for barbershop contest use, but the way that the Barbershop Harmony Society has deliberately relaxed its approach to judging style in order to encourage new repertoire in the last 6 years or so has moved it from the category of ‘not really quite barbershoppy enough’ to ‘actually, this will be fine’. So it will unexpectedly bump up my tally of contest premieres come October.

Musicking with the White Rosettes

WRjun19

This may prove to be a tricky post to write. Not for any emotional complications – it tells of an entirely cheerful and purposeful occasion – nor for conceptual conundrums – we all knew what we were doing and we did it well. The problem is the entirely practical one of how do I write an account of a coaching session that was pretty much entirely about specific musical detail without actually talking about the music?

I run into this problem to an extent every time I go to coach an ensemble on a new arrangement that they will want to reveal at some point in the future, but there’s usually some generalisable technical points to distract you with while I’m avoiding naming the song. Is vagueblogging a thing?

And of course it would be unthinkable to go and work with the UK’s most consistently successful barbershop chorus and not blog about it. That would be silly.

Continuing the Journey with Norwich Harmony

Obligatory warm-up action picObligatory warm-up action pic

One of the joyful things about being invited to work with a group several times over the course of a few years is the opportunity to see them develop. I have visited Norwich Harmony in late Spring or early summer before, but I don’t recall hearing them sounding so assured on the music they are preparing for the autumn at this stage previously. It wasn’t just that the singing was clean and resonant, with very few details getting smudged, it was that everyone seemed up-for-it and undaunted by any challenge I threw at them. This is a very satisfying way to spend a Saturday.

I asked their director Alison Thompson to what she could attribute this upgrade in achievement, and she talked through various areas of specific technical skill they had been working on. Behind this, though, were more fundamental points: having the confidence that she had found an approach that would work for them, and being relentless in her pursuit of them.

BABS Convention 2019

Mixed chorus champions: A Kind of MagicMixed chorus champions: A Kind of Magic

The last weekend in May is the traditional spot in the calendar for the British Association of Barbershop Singers to hold their national Convention. This year we were back in Bournemouth, the town in which I started my barbershop journey 23 years ago.

The headline change was that this is the first year that the mixed chorus contest has been fully under the BABS umbrella. Indeed, from the way the contest was introduced you’d think that BABS had invented the genre: they claimed that of the 10 entrants, half were newly formed to enter, and half were collaborations between existing clubs. (It reminded me of the way that when the Barbershop Harmony Society announced their new inclusive strategic vision they made it sound like they’d just invented women.)

Team-coaching with Fascinating Rhythm

Riser-top view of the team in actionRiser-top view of the team in actionRegular readers will know by now that Fascinating Rhythm have been leading the way amongst British barbershop choruses by bringing newly commissioned music to the contest stage every year since 2015. Last weekend was their annual retreat at which they got their teeth into their 5th consecutive new package, and for the first time they decided to invite me to coach for a day alongside their regular coach Sally McLean rather than bring us in separately as they have hitherto.

I was going to say that fortunately their regular coach and their regular arranger have very compatible approaches to music and performance, but that makes it sound like it’s luck or coincidence. Thinking about it, though, it would be more surprising if they chose people to work with regularly who had incongruent artistic attitudes.

Aurora Revisited

We forgot to take a selfie so Helen spliced us together afterwards...We forgot to take a selfie so Helen spliced us together afterwards...Last Sunday afternoon brought Aurora quartet back for more coaching, to follow up the session we had back in March. They had clearly been working diligently since last time there were here, and it was most cheering to be able to tell them how readily apparent the improvement was to someone who hadn’t heard them in the interim.

Of course one always intends for rehearsals to be making things better, but when you are in the thick of it you can’t always tell whether your incremental changes are adding up. So it's useful to hear from someone who only hears you intermittently.

They came in with a helpfully specific list of things they wanted help with - pacing the intro to one song, trouble-shooting some unusual chords in another – which, almost more than the greater consistency of sound, signalled that they are now taking more control over their development.

Building the Arc with Bristol A Cappella

The warm-up is going swimmingly...The warm-up is going swimmingly...On Saturday I went down to help Bristol A Cappella with their preparation for the mixed chorus context at the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention later this month. They were going to be working with Performance specialist Kirsty Williams on Sunday, so I could focus on musical and vocal issues, knowing that she would bring their focus back out onto their audience the next day.

(Of course I find it hard to talk about an interesting chord without considering what it will do to a listener, and there were places where choreography could conveniently be leveraged to help vocal technique. But the generalisation stands that there were things I could safely put to one side knowing that Kirsty would have them in her sights the next day.)

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