A Cappella

Inside the Arranging Process with Cheshire Chord Company

CCCmar21On Thursday evening I joined the Cheshire Chord Company to offer a presentation on the arranging process, walking through some of the practical and artistic decisions that inform how a chart takes shape. As ever with these kinds of events, I came away far more interested in the questions than they were asking than what I had presented – after all, I knew what I was going to say in advance as I’d prepared it, but the questions take the conversation into all kinds of interesting places that I’d not necessarily anticipated.

One question that I’m often asked and find almost impossible to answer is what is my favourite chart. I’m generally poor at picking favourites of anything, but I think the reason it is particularly hard with arrangements is that every time I am arranging something for someone, for them it is their special thing. So, for the duration of the time I’m working on it, it is my special thing too. If I want the groups I arrange for to be delighted with their music, I can’t approach it as ‘just another chart’.

HALO on Race and Real Talk

HALOworkshopmar21Last Saturday the British Association of Barbershop Singers held a training event for its Musical Directors on diversity with a particular focus on racism, led by the quartet HALO. They have a well-developed programme in which they use the musical relationships within the barbershop style as a metaphor to help clarify various aspects of a productive dialogue about inclusion and race.

After presenting the core concepts and working through some of their implications, they use it as an analytical tool to tease out insights in the discussions between workshop participants. I came away with a sense of having some powerful new tools for understanding, and a deep admiration for their facilitation skills. If you ever get the chance to attend one of their workshops, take it.

Developing the Vision with Route Sixteen

route16feb21I spent part of Thursday evening on zoom with my friends from Route Sixteen in Dordrecht. If covid had not come along, they would have recently have premiered an arrangement they commissioned from me as part of an ambitious concept set to defend their Holland Harmony championship, but instead they have spent the last year as we all have working round the limitations of our new circumstances to continue their musical journey as best they can.

They are still focused on bringing this concept package to fruition, either for the Dutch or the European barbershop conventions, whichever comes first, though they have found the vision adapting in some ways in response to the covid experience. We spent some time discussing the practicalities of how to rehearse and perform their ideas for staging as they emerge from lockdown.

Thought Experiment: Can’t Get No Dissatisfaction

A recent conversation in a barbershop arrangers facebook group has got me thinking about the role of dissatisfaction in creativity. Participants were sympathising with each other over the experience of working on a chart, and knowing it isn’t yet right, but struggling to figure out how to make it work. Anybody in any creative endeavour (and I mean that in the widest possible sense) will be having a sympathetic sigh at that thought.

I initially thought my reflections would be leading to revisit the idea of decision fatigue. There are only so many decisions we can make in any one day, and one of the points of routine is to automate as many as possible to free up cognitive capacity for the projects where you want to make some new happen. The pandemic has blown all our previous-established routines out of the water, so anyone who finds themselves too tired after work to make much progress in their arranging is not failing. They’re just having their creative capacities consumed by things other than music.

BABS Directors Academy 2021

BABSDA2021Saturday held the annual director-training event from the British Association of Barbershop Singers. As with everything these days, it was virtual rather than live, and also therefore rather shorter than usual – 5 hours rather than nearly two days. And, as with everything, this brought some brightsides along with the dilution of experience.

We inevitably had much less opportunity to bond with and learn from our fellow directors (so much learning normally happens in the bar after dinner!), though it was still lovely to see their faces. But it did mean that we could enjoy two visiting educators from the US, Cindy Hansen and Greg Clancy, rather than the one that the budget would usually run to.

Along with a contribution from Linda Corcoran, director of the Great Western Chorus of Bristol, this generated some really interesting connections between sessions, and interactions between presenters. This was clearly not entirely an accident – there were clear connections between the themes of Greg’s session on musical identity and Cindy’s on branding – but Linda’s presentation pre-figured elements of both and gave a useful concrete case-study for everyone to refer back to.

Thoughts on Barbershop and Musical Comedy

The shibboleth in barbershop circles is that any attempt at comedy has, first and foremost, to be sung well if it is to work. The better it’s sung, the funnier people will find it. This post unpicks this assumption: there’s something to it for sure, but I don’t think it tells the whole story.

The reason why this generalisation seems generally plausible is, I think, because ‘well sung’ functions as an effective proxy for ‘thoroughly-rehearsed’ and ‘has high standards’. Ensembles that develop their skills in one of these dimensions typically improve in the others too. Lurking behind the truism is the memory of mediocre performances that were not very well executed as comedy, didn’t have enough jokes in them (those they did have being rather obvious), and that were also not very well sung.

But this is a case of correlation, rather than causation. It’s not necessarily the fact that they’re singing better that makes a successful group more funny. In fact, these two dimensions are at least moderately dissociable once you’re beyond the base level of ‘does the audience trust your skillset?’

Zooming in with The Rhubarbs

Screenshot or it didn't happen...Screenshot or it didn't happen...My last international coaching trip early in 2020 was over to Bonn to work with The Rhubarbs and their quartet, Note-4-Note. Coronavirus was in the news by then, and we compared notes about how it was regarded in the Germany versus the UK, but I don’t think we could yet imagine the impact it was going to have on us all. Whilst it is always heart-warming to see the faces of people you’re fond of over Zoom, these memories gave a little extra emotional resonance to my visit to the chorus on Tuesday evening.

Until quite recently, they had been able to meet to rehearse, and so are in the early days of their Zoom experience. So far they had largely used the platform to stay in touch rather than for musical activity, but since they’d invited me I suggested we could do some singing games while we were at it.

LABBS Chorus Day: Reflections on Style and Emotional Experience


One of my premieres for the weekend that exemplifies cheerful diatonicism

One of the things we saw coming with the LABBS Big Weekend was how, freed from the constraints of contest rules, choruses took the opportunity to share all kinds of repertoire we’d never hear on a contest stage. At a personal level, this gave me the opportunity to hear a bunch of arrangements I’d had commissioned last year that I might not otherwise have had the chance to hear at all. There was even one chart that was commissioned several years ago but that I had never heard before.

What I hadn’t anticipated was coming to the end of the day feeling that the musical diet we’d been treated to was less varied than I had expected. For sure there were lots of songs we wouldn’t normally get to hear at Convention, but in the event that also entailed hearing a lot more primarily diatonic music than usual.

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