December 2009

On Range and Tessitura

A rather nice way of showing vocal ranges visually, from PhonatureA rather nice way of showing vocal ranges visually, from PhonatureThis week saw the addition to my arrangements catalogue of information about the ranges for each part. It took quite a long time to work through all parts of every arrangement, but I’m hoping it will save you time in emailing me to ask, and me time in answering. And the process gave me lots of opportunity to reflect on the meaning and usefulness of this information.

At the most basic level, range is the primary criterion for deciding on an arrangement’s suitability for a particular ensemble. If the person singing that part doesn’t have notes used at either top or bottom, there’s no point attempting the song, as it will always over-stretch the group – and at key musical points, too. (Extremes of high and low notes never appear casually or en passant.)

But range doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about how a song lies on the voices.

Mistletoe and Clichés

There’s a funny thing about the popular music of Christmas: so much of it seems to box itself in to a limited set of elements. This is true of both the music and the lyrics. The sound world always has to involve something tinkly, either as a direct reference to sleigh bells (or maybe church bells), or as a kind of metaphorical equivalent of the twinkly things we adorn the world with at this time of year – a kind of aural tinsel. The lyrics also have a set collection of wintery iconography to evoke, listing the items that likewise turn up as figurative imagery in Christmas decorations. Cliff Richard’s 1988 hit ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ is the archetypal example, sounding almost fetishistic in its catalogue of seasonal signifiers.

Developing Musical Awareness

In my post back in March on singing semitones, I started to develop a hierarchy of musicianship by how much of the music singers are aware of. The lowest level is where they just sing their part, and the highest is where they feel as if they’re singing the music in its entirety. And it is a robust generalisation from my experience working with barbershop choruses and quartets in post-contest evaluations that the groups in which the harmony parts could not sing the tune were the choruses that scored low.

Our rehearsal processes can sometimes mitigate against the development of this kind of awareness, however. Section practices are very efficient ways to learn a part, but not at all effective ways to learn the music, for example.

Search Me!

If you ever find yourself down at the bottom of the screen on Helping You Harmonise, you may notice that a Search box has arrived. This is a sign of the site reaching a certain maturity – there is enough stuff here now that it can take a while to navigate around it using the date and category links.

Of course, people who arrive looking for something in particular will probably have gone straight to whatever it was that their external search engine suggested might meet their needs. The on-site search is more likely to be useful to people who have been here before and half-remember something they want to check back on.

Henry Coward and the ‘Line of Beauty’

Henry CowardHenry CowardI have been re-reading Henry Coward’s Choral Technique and Interpretation and it does not get less fascinating on re-acquaintance. Written in 1914, it is simultaneously a fascinating document of the musical practices and cultural values of his time, and a timeless statement of good practice for performing musicians. It is both intensely practical and deeply thought-through. Coward’s own character shines through as both strong-minded and idiosyncratic in all sorts of ways. He must have been wonderful to sing for.

The chapter on musical expression lays down a series of rules for beauty, at first in terms of painting (he credits Ruskin with putting him on this track), and then articulated as musical guidelines.

Hedonic Adaptation and Learning

Every so often as I reflect in this blog on the process of learning, I come back to the need for repetition or drill for the secure acquisition of skills. It turned up as the idea of ‘re-freezing’ when I was thinking about Kotter’s model of how to effect change, and Iacoboni’s book on mirror neurons gave some insight into the neurological processes that underlie it.

But you’ll have noticed a certain mistrust of drill even as I affirm its necessity.

Do Choir Robes Make You Sing Better?

There was a fascinating thread over on the Choralnet forums last month about the benefits or otherwise of wearing choir robes. It elicited a wide range of thoughtful and insightful responses – one of those discussions in which people had wildly contrasting views, all of which were perfectly reasonable and well-argued.

What emerged from the discussion was that the practice of wearing choir robes has very different meanings for different groups.

Unity and Variety

The balance between unity and variety in music is a technical/artistic challenge that composers have been grappling with for probably as long as they have been writing music. It seems to become a more urgent issue, however, when you head into the nineteenth century with the development of the idea that works should be individual – that they should have recognisable identities that distinguish them from all other works. There are all sorts of reasons for this aesthetic shift, but changes in listening habits are indicative. When the orchestra is the background music for a duchess’s card game, symphonies can be more generic, but when the lights are lowered to put everyone’s attention on the orchestra, the music needs to do more to distinguish itself.

Those of us writing a cappella arrangements of popular songs from the last century might be working on a more modest scale than the nineteenth-century symphonists, but we face similar artistic and technical challenges. Specifically, there is the question about how much to repeat stuff. It’s a simple question, but the answer is always interestingly non-obvious, because of the effect that repetition has on a piece’s sense of identity.

Exam Results

Noteorious at their Maida Vale recording sessionNoteorious at their Maida Vale recording sessionWell, Noteorious have enjoyed a good bit of airplay this week on Radio 1 – appearing not only at ungodly o’clock on Dev’s show, but popping up elsewhere through the days to promote the Masterpiece shows each evening. So, I think that means I passed the arranging test. And for those who have been sensibly asleep first thing in the morning, there are now some nice videos of them singing the arrangements on Dev’s website:

Daft Punk
The Clash
The Streets
And an interview with clips of all four

Golden rules for rehearsing a choir

There’s lots of good advice out there for rehearsing choirs, but I’ve been trying to work out which ones are really important. I’ve made myself stick to three, since that means I can’t include just everything that’s a good idea, but have to actually prioritise. You may choose to disagree – I’d be interested if you could give your top three golden rules in the comments.

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