Strictly/Frisson Double-Bill

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Warm-up pic snapped at a particularly invigorating momentWarm-up pic snapped at a particularly invigorating moment

Last Thursday evening saw me coaching Strictly A Cappella, having spent the afternoon coaching Frisson quartet. Both ensembles are preparing for a concert coming up next week – and if you think the timing of the coaching is surprisingly close to the performance, you’d be right. Our plan had been to work together the week before, but Covid had other ideas.

Still, when you are working that close to a performance you get a very distinctive kind of energy and impetus to the experience. With both groups we romped through far more music than you would when digging deep at an earlier stage of preparation, with all attention focused on how to enhance the impact of music that is already essentially well under control.

One of the most satisfying processes in coaching is when you spot something that is kind of going on at an intuitive level, and bring it up to conversant awareness so that people can own it and use it with a greater sense of purpose. In both groups I noticed a propensity to generate a different soundworld or tonal colour palette for different songs. Reflecting this back at them to focus their intent brought some wonderfully artistic results – and in the process sorted out all kinds of miscellaneous details that we might otherwise have had to work on individually.

(It is probably not a coincidence that this instinct was evident in both groups, since the personnel of Frisson represents a significant proportion of the musical leaders in Strictly A Cappella.)

Sometimes, particularly with Strictly, we used orchestral metaphors to clarify concepts of tonal colour. The oboe, for instance, is an ideal reference timbre for a Cyndi Lauper song – it brings a core of twang to the sound that evokes her voice without either nasality or caricature, both of which you’d risk if you tried to imitate her voice directly. In this instance, the common tonal concepte produuced a cohesion of sound that brought the harmonies to life and facilitated a more ambitious dynamic arc.

At other times, it was the other way round: what started out as technical work led us to a more fully developed sound world. With Frisson I used the kind of sing-song mode of speaking the parts sometimes known as ‘Singlish’ as a means to coordinate word sounds. It focuses the attention on the micro-timings of intricate passages to produce a cleaner, crisper result.

In the process, I noticed that the spoken tones were quite disparate, possibly more noticeably so than when they were singing. So on our next pass through I asked them to attend not only to synchronising their word sounds but also to aim to match their vocal colour. When we put the notes back in we were rewarded with a much more unified ensemble sung tone, and with it much greater clarity of harmonic content and a more distinctive sense of the song’s ‘voice’.

One of the things that emerged for me through these various explorations was that you can tell when you have found the right tone quality for these singers in the context of this piece of music by the way that all kinds of other musical details resolve themselves. Questions of balance, for instance, largely sorted themselves out without need for further intervention, and the sense of shaping and phrasing became a lot more intuitive. I had feedback from singers too that things became vocally much easier once we had clarified tone.

There’s something here going on about creating a congruence between the group’s sense of musical identity and the persona of the song that facilitates both understanding and execution. I also find it interesting that this emerged from a dimension of artistry that was already implicit in what the ensembles were doing. It could be that for other groups the route to connecting singers so directly with song might take another path entirely, depending on what their collective strength is.

But if you want to hear what these two groups are doing with tonal colour through a wonderful variety of sparkling arrangements, you can get tickets to their concert here.

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