Melodic Musings in Merseyside

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merseyI spent Sunday up in Liverpool with the ladies of Mersey Harmony. It was the first time I’d worked with the chorus, but I knew their director Lesley from my sessions with Cheshire Chord Company. There is a wonderful synergy in the way the premier ensembles in a region serve as training grounds for the musical leaders of neighbouring groups, and the northwest is one of the country’s real hotbeds of barbershop activity.

We spent a lot of the morning session on some intensive work on smoothing out the melodic flow in their contest up-tune. This is an enterprise that has both technical and imaginative dimensions, and thus involves adjustments to both physical habits of execution and mental habits of musical thinking. Part of my task, indeed, was working out what combination of the two they needed: was the slightly over-wordy delivery a function of incomplete control of vowel placement or of an over-investment in the rhythmic qualities of the lyric?

Bubbling the first page revealed an initially over-articulated approach, but the readiness with which the singers connected the line up again in this mode showed that the underlying continuity of breath was in good order. (The resonance they achieved on an open vowel had already induced optimism on this matter.)

Switching to singing without consonants in turn showed up which vowels were leaking out sideways (ay’s and eye’s) and which were slipping into a backward placement (neutral vowels or those on unstressed syllables). We had some interesting conversations about accent and singing on the back of this. The Scouse accent has some very wide vowels that need moderating for the sake of consistency in singing; to compensate it offers a default brightness that those from the south of England have to work quite hard to attain.

The combination of these two techniques helped develop a considerably more flowing delivery. The rhythmic character was still there, but melody and lyric were more in balance with one another. There was just one brief passage that remained blocky - and it was where some disjunct and chromatic patterns had proved challenging. They had solved the problems of pitch accuracy through slow singing to secure the harmonies, but that had left them feeling the passage in terms of separate chords rather than as joined-up lines.

Talking through the expressive purpose of these wiggly-woggly lines helped here. Why would a composer write a tune like that? What were they trying to communicate? Having succeeded in nailing the tricksy notes, what kind of effects could the chorus create with them?

The afternoon session turned its attention to their ballad, and mostly focused on other musical agendas, but we put in the final piece of the melodic puzzle with some attention to consonants. We need consonants, without them we are bereft of meaning, but sometimes they don’t half get in the way of melody. By their very definition, they are created by interrupting the airflow.

Having said that, it was mostly the consonants that allow the airflow to continue that were getting in the way: sh’s and l’s, r’s and th’s. The thing is, you can physically take your time over these in a way that you can’t with a t or a p. As a result, they were tending to invade the space that should have been occupied by vowels, giving a slightly chewy feel to the lyric. When the singers focused on flicking these so that they were energised by brief, they suddenly started working for the melody rather than getting in the way.

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