A Busy Night with Cleeve Harmony

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Natalie Feddon addressing the chorusNatalie Feddon addressing the chorus

It was all happening at Cleeve Harmony’s chorus night on Wednesday. They had a visit from LABBS Chair Natalie Feddon and a new member to be welcomed into the organisation, as well as two new songs to be coached on. I was there for the latter bit, but it was fun to be there for the other bits, especially as I’d not been able to join them for their 10th birthday celebrations the week before.

The two new songs we were working on were ones I’d arranged for them back in the autumn, so one was at the ‘basically learned but still finding our way round it’ stage and the other at the ‘started learning, but only the music team has sung it together yet’ stage. One of the fun things about coaching music in this very early stage of development is that you can explore global themes such as concept and groove that shape how people feel and understand the music while they’re still getting acquainted with it.

And one of the fun things about coaching a song a group has commissioned is that you can draw on the conversations that informed the commission in making sense of the music. In the case of their first song, the overall feel is of a ballad in terms of lyric and melodic behaviour, but the original has a clear and strong beat throughout, and this was one of the features that they specifically wanted to bring out in their version.

One of the interesting things when bring music from a rock heritage into a cappella that if you model your delivery on the downwards-percussive gesture of drums and repeated piano chords it doesn’t create drive very effectively, but rather bogs you down. You need to find ways (as an arranger, and as a singer) to connect with that underlying pulse but in ways that work well with the voice and will thus carry the music forward.

So, we did a fair bit of work in Singlish (i.e. speaking the text in a sing-song sort of voice), exploring how each part has its own distinctive patterns of accents that combine overall to give that sense of forward drive whilst also giving everyone space to think and to breathe. We also brought out the way that, once the underlying tempo and groove is established, committing to long notes (whether in the melody of accompanying parts) also supports the sense of forward momentum.

We worked on the second song in an ‘under glass’ model, with MD and music team demonstrating for the rest of the chorus. Hearing other people being coached is always interesting, as you get to notice things that you don’t have space to register when you are inside the musicking yourself. But it’s even more engaging when it’s with music you are also in the early stages of learning – everything we did with the section leaders would have direct application for all those watching.

And in this scenario, we could also get the rest of the chorus involved. Our first task was to bring out the swing feel of the song. A standard method for this would be to get the singers doing a backbeat click (and thence coordinating the size of the gestures to agree on the feel as well as timing of the metre); on Wednesday, we had everyone in the room doing the clicks. This not only gave all chorus members the opportunity to absorb the rhythmic profile without the distraction of also trying to sing, it gave the quartet of section leaders a really strong rhythmic framework they could relax into instead of having to do all the work themselves.

After a bit of nitty-gritty harmony work, we escalated this idea by exploring the idea of a song’s body language. What kind of stance does that rhythmic feel suggest? How does the way you inhabit your body in this kind of music affect the tone? Again, we had everyone stand up and find their way into a shared way of being. And we heard how that will help the whole chorus by the way it brought a much more integrated sound from their demo quartet.

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