A Cappella Spring Fest

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The Contemporary A Cappella Stream in performanceThe Contemporary A Cappella Stream in performance

I spent Sunday at the fifth annual A Cappella Spring Fest to be held in the Cornerstone arts centre in Didcot. It’s a rather wonderful event, hosted by a couple of local choirs, whose ongoing collaboration has produced slick organisation and a confident and helpful team. If you’re anywhere near Oxfordshire on the second weekend in March next year, I’d recommend it as a way to spend a day with 120 like-minded singers.

The day involves plenary sessions at start and end for warm-up and work on the Fest Song all together in the morning, and then performances in the afternoon. It then offers a choice of classes for two sessions, then two sessions in genre-themed groups working on a piece to share at the end of the day. This year there were streams for gospel, classical, barbershop, a new-to-a-cappella group, and I was leading the contemporary a cappella stream.

One of the distinctive things about this festival is that, in contrast to a lot of workshops at which everything is learned from scratch on the day, the music is distributed in advance, and people asked to come along having prepared their part. This means that you can actually go a good way beyond just getting notes and words sorted in the two 45-minute sessions available, and really get into performance-level issues - communication, shaping, bringing out details. I was particularly proud of my group for getting off the copies to perform entirely from memory, which just freed them up to enjoy the message of the song.

As it turned out, memory was one of the arrangement’s particular challenges, but in quite a specific way. We were learning Deke Sharon’s arrangement of ‘I Hope You Dance’,* chosen because, as well as being a good tune, it had all the pragmatic requirements for this kind of event: shortish, not overly complex, but nonetheless interesting, a tenor line that could be shared by women in the event of an unbalanced group, and it shared out the melody so that everyone got to have a bit of the narrative.

This last point was particularly remarked on by several participants as something they appreciated. Contemporary a cappella as a genre more often than not keeps the melody to a single part, often performed as a solo lead. And when you have an established group with a range of repertoire so that the candy gets passed round and everyone who is up for doing the lead gets a go in different songs, this is fine. But in a workshop situation, where you’re only doing one piece, it’s good to make sure everyone gets their spot as the centre of expressive attention. Vocables are fun, but they’re not the only thing you might want to sing.

But this advantage of the arrangement also became one of its biggest challenges, as people had to switch mental gear between accompaniment role and melodic activity. Remembering the words that are coming up in time to start singing them when you’re doot-ing or na-nuh-nuh-ing is strangely harder than you’d think. It’s not that any of the words were hard, but the extra cognitive load in switching role just slowed the brains down that tiny amount that meant the anacrusis was liable to be a bit of a scramble. As one of the participants pointed out to me in the break, it’s actually easier to remember all the words than just two phrases part-way through.

So we did some specific memory work on this. I asked everyone just to spend a few moments clocking in their own heads how their melodic phrases started. And then, to look back a few bars to check what happens immediately before their melodic phrases. They needed to insert a mental trigger to prime themselves to be ready: at the breath point before the one that led into their melodic passages, they needed to think, ‘right, this phrase coming up’.

Once we’d done this mental preparation with the music, we put the copies down again. We sang through the first two-thirds (i.e. the part of the song that covered all the mentally-demanding phrase openings), with the part on melody singing out full voice, with all the accompaniment parts singing sotto voce. The point about singing under the voice in this context is that you sing as if just to yourself, the way you do when you are running through something for your own benefit rather than to sing to someone else. This gave everyone the mental space to connect with their trigger points, and also the musical space to make a clear and assertive start to their respective phrases.

Interestingly, we also really liked the balance when we sang it this way. Balance is obviously one of the other challenges of a piece like this with an intricate texture - you want all the detail to be there, but the melody needs to come through it clearly. We had made good progress on this, but the ‘sing to yourself’ mode gave a significant extra gain in effectiveness. It needed to be a little more overt than that to be ideal, but it is much easier to bring out a few featured details from that texture than it is to subdue an overwhelming mass of accompanying lines.

My usual approach to balance is appeal to the singers’ ears: if you can’t hear the tune, you need to listen louder. I find that asking people to ‘back off’ is expressively counter-productive. But of course in a short-term workshop like this, people don’t have quite the mental space for listening that they do when they are rehearsing more familiar material. So, that approach was making a useful difference, but tending to lose its gains whenever people had to think too hard about something else.

The ‘sing to yourself’ mode was interesting because it produced a delivery that was quiet, but still expressively engaged. All the definition was still there, because people were thinking deeply about the musical content, not merely trying to rein their voices in. And as a context to sort out balance, having a starting-point where the accompaniment is actually too quiet is an unusual and interesting treat.

* And thanks and kudos to Deke for responding to an enquiry about learning materials for this arrangement by commissioning a colleague to produce some and make them available for purchase within days. That’s the kind of service that makes me come over all British and understated (which, you understand, is a form of rhetorical emphasis) and say he was really quite helpful.

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