August 2012

Some Help in Harmonising...

I recently received an email with the subject line 'Please help me to harmonise', and I thought: well, yes, that's what I do! I'll let my correspondent say in her own words what in particular she'd like help with:

In January I took up singing in an A Cappella group. I find singing in a harmony group difficult at present and I am sure that it is all in my head.

I am singing baritone and have no problem at all learning my part, I sing well when I am grouped with the other baris in my group and we sound great as a unit. It's when we are split up and I end up having the lead part sung loudly in my ear, I just can't cope because all I can hear is the lead part... I would love to be able to hear the chord that all the parts make up to help me gel in this chorus.

Now my first thought is: don't be down-hearted, this is a perfectly normal experience in the first few months of singing a cappella harmony. One of the reasons I wanted to respond publicly was because there will be loads of other people saying either, 'Yes, that's me too!' or 'Yes, that was me when I first started!' So message number 1: hang on in there, this is something you do get better at over time.

Extreme Quartetting

I spent Saturday afternoon and evening in Nottingham at the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ Harmony College, at which I had been invited to judge the contest that formed part of a stream called ‘Extreme Quartets’. This is a model that takes the idea of chamber music as practice gadget, and simultaneously supports and intensifies the experience.

The way it works is this. Participants learn a great pile of music in advance (in this case, six songs), and then spend the weekend receiving coaching on them, both as a chorus – re-living the original invention of the barbershop chorus as a way to deliver coaching to lots of singers simultaneously – and in a variety of quartet line-ups. The contest had a preliminary round in the afternoon, with the top two quartets and a randomly-picked third going through to the final in the Saturday evening show.

Culture and Subculture; Identity and Rivalry

crazystrawsThe morning after the Olympics I heard a conversation on the radio about national and regional identities. It wandered through whether it was positive or divisive for people to be saying things like 'If Yorkshire were a country, we'd be 7th on the medal table', past how John Lennon's 'Imagine there's no countries' throws the whole concept of the Olympic Games in disarray, and ended with the cheering thought that, 'When the Martians land, that's when we can reasonably be separatist.'

The notion it developed without really naming was that of identities as nested. British people do this a lot as a matter of course: depending on context I may say that I'm British or I may say that I'm English. I've moved around enough that I don't tend to identify with a smaller granular level than that, though if I were a Yorkshirewoman or a Scouser I might carry that identification with me even as I moved round the country: it's clear that some regions and cities have a stronger tribal pull than others.

We do this in music all the time too of course.

Rehearsing, Performing and the Relationship with Time

timeparadoxI recently found myself leafing through a book called The Time Paradox that explores the question of people’s relationships with past, present and future. These relationships seem to consist of a combination of attention (is your imagination always leaping ahead to plans and projects yet to come, or wallowing in events that have already happened?), and emotional orientation (do you focus on the positive or negative aspects of the time you’re paying attention to?).

Lots of interesting stuff in there, of which possibly the most important for practical purposes is the typical profile of happy and well-adjusted people. This involves a strong orientation towards the positive past (traditions, happy memories, as opposed to regrets), and a reasonably strong orientation to both the hedonistic present (pleasure, living in the moment, as opposed to the fatalistic present in which you feel no control over your life) and to the future. They also have some useful lists of things to do to strengthen your connection with any of these if you’re out of balance.

Wednesday in Windsor

windsorwarmupWednesday took me down to Windsor to work current BABS silver medallists, The Royal Harmonics. I have arranged for them several times in recent years, but this was the first time we had made music together in person - indeed, it was also the first time I heard two of my arrangements sung live.

Part of the evening's agenda was to work on the most recent of my arrangements they had commissioned, and it was at that perfect point in the rehearsal process to coach where the singers were secure enough on it not to be wasting mental effort on memory tasks, but still fresh enough on it to be very flexible in adapting their performance.

Harmony in Wessex

Jane Fielding warms up the chorusJane Fielding warms up the chorusSaturday took me down to Poole to work with Wessex Harmony and their director Dyrck Lamble. Dyrck had set an agenda for the day that involved breadth of repertoire rather than intensive coaching on just a couple of pieces, and we spent chunks of 20 minutes each on several repertoire songs interspersed between the work on the music they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in October.

As a result, we covered noticeably more different techniques and approaches than one would in a coaching session that had a narrower repertoire focus – and I found it made me much more aware of the techniques of prioritising. At the same time, of course, it gave us less chance to embed skills, and thus leaves the chorus not only with a longer list of things to work on, but also more responsibility to do so in order to make sure they become secure and permanent parts of their skill base.

Classical Girl Power?

In the Diamond Jubilee concert at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, Lesley Garrett introduced the line-up of herself, violinist Nicola Benedetti, trumpeter Alison Balsom and conductor Sian Edwards as ‘classical girl power’. I found myself simultaneously cheered at this list of soloists and wistful that it should still be a matter of remark. ‘Girl Power’ is after all one of those odd phrases that encapsulates optimism and defeatism at the same time.

However, the concert was a very interesting case-study in different solutions to the presentational questions female musicians need to address in their roles as public figures. As I have written about before, there are competing imperatives between the ideologies of classical music that render the musician invisible to ‘let the music speak for itself’ and the general cultural expectation that the female body will be on display, subject to public gaze.

Individual versus Ensemble Practice

singing group cartoon

One of Magenta’s singers recently asked if we could give some attention to a particular part of one of our songs in a rehearsal because the particular thing she was grappling with is hard to practise by yourself. Not only did this gladden my heart (I love it when people give me information that will help me make rehearsals really productive), but it also got me thinking (which is actually another cause for gladness).

So, I started to classify the skills we need in a choir according to whether you can practise them by yourself or whether you need other people there to work on them.

Massed Voices and the Charismatic Encounter

It is a feature of charismatic leaders that they are most famously depicted surrounded by crowds. Hitler addressing his rallies, Jesus feeding the five thousand: one of the ways we recognise charismatic authority is by its power to galvanise large groups.

But I have been thinking recently about how the large groups themselves may be part of the dynamic that generates the charismatic encounter. If we consider Raymond Bradley's conception of charisma as a property that emerges from a group with a particular set of beliefs and relational structures that attribute the extraordinary powers to a particular person or social position, it seems that the crowd is as important as the leader in creating the experience.

I have been thinking about this in particular in relation to the phenomenon of massed-choir events. These may be a feature of festivals, of civic events, or as one of the commercial ventures that have sprung up in recent years that offer participants local preparation over a number of weeks leading up to a concert in a major venue. If you lead a choir, you will get reasonably regular invitations to bring your singers along to participate in these.

On Keeping a Rehearsal Moving

I recently found myself giving some advice about running a rehearsal to the effect that it is more important to move onto the next activity at the scheduled time than it is to complete the task in hand. And as I drew breath to say why I would recommend this, I realised that it's exactly the kind of thing to blog about: simple on the surface, but more interesting the longer you think about it.

So to start with the more simple and obvious advantages to moving on:

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