Tags: arrangements, arranging, barbershop, education, harmony, harmony college, LABBS, ladies, ladies' association of british barbershop singers, music, singing, training, white rosettes, women
Harmony College weekend started with a bang – literally – when I walked into a doorstop in the Premier Inn bathroom on the Saturday morning and broke a toe.
Liz [with a grin]: It’s been sent to take your mind off how nervous you are. It’s a GIFT.
It was true I’d spent the previous week trying not to be sick. LABBS Harmony College is a weekend of learning about barbershop, and listening to it and singing it and talking about it and thinking about it. A whole weekend. Sounds blissful, right? But a class called A Cappella Show & Tell was looming large in my nightmares. It was JUST what I needed to move me on with my arranging, except I’d only ever shown my work to people I could trust not to say, ‘Blimey! Well… it’s… um… interesting.’ As the weekend drew closer, I printed out seventy-three different arrangements and decided none of them were actually any good at all.
Liz went off to be awesome on the Directors’ Stream and I was on my own. Luckily, Heather Lane couldn’t have been more supportive and friendly. I was cheered to realise that not every arranger has fourteen music degrees and wanders around murmuring to herself about subdominant progressions using the tonic seventh. (Only some of them.) In fact, arrangers seem to fall into two groups: those who think in terms of the notes on the page, and those who rely on their ears. Each types values (and slightly envies) the skills of the other, and I realised arranging didn’t have to be me on my own with my computer; it could be a collaborative enterprise.
Once this was over, I relaxed and I learnt BAGS of stuff including FINALLY understanding the circle of fifths*, primary harmony** and musical themes*** (all of which you need in order to arrange a song Properly Barbershoppily). We had excellent fun pretending to be Music Category judges, watching DVDs with proper LABBS score sheets in front of us and trying to agree on whether performances were 59s or 61s. I imagined my mouth as a nave, or maybe a piping bag, in the Understanding Resonance class with Alison Thompson, and tried to judge videoed quartets on their singing. We wrote a tag collaboratively under Delyth Knight’s tutelage, with me going ‘Dah dah dah dah’ (singing the chord I wanted) and the rest of the class going ‘C E G Bb’ (#earsversusnotes).
Liz and I ran into utterly fabulous The Mix quartet, and sweet-talked them into letting us watch them warm up for their coaching session. (Sandra: You two are so funny. You’re sitting there, like [makes face of scarily unsmiling slightly stalkerish audience member]. Me: We’re CONCENTRATING.) The coaching-under-glass was fascinating – I was awed by their ability to take a piece of advice from Doug Harrington or Sandi Wright and immediately integrate it seamlessly into their performance.
We cheered the Quartet Stream participants, showing off what they’d learned over the weekend, and sang Bohemian Rhapsody en masse, and Doug taught the whole College a tag: ‘It would be great if we could keep it in D.’ Sandi inspired us to think differently about performance, and our beloved Sally McLean’s session on platforming brought everyone to raucous laughter and tears within about two minutes of each other.
It was the first time I’d been away to a barbershop event without the White Rosettes massive, and it was weird without the formidable wave of #RosetteLove propelling me from one place to another. But it meant we talked to other people. We found out about barbershop dynasties, splits and shenanigans and other types of derring-do up and down the country. We caught up with the Barberettes who’d come to visit us in rehearsal a few weeks ago (‘I can’t believe how hard you guys WORK!’). We drank wine and formed a bass-heavy quartet. (We don’t need you, tenors. No sirree.) We sang with Norwich Harmony and Cheshire Chord Company in the bar, and a friendly bass warbled in my ear so I could try and sing along. Barbershoppers really are a lovely lot.
I came away feeling inspired, and that I had the tools to have a go at stuff. Liz and I drove back up the motorway listening to the Jackson Five and James Brown, playing Spot The Theme***** and working out the chords: ‘One. Five. One. Four. Five. One.’ I’m currently barbershopping The Pink Panther at the rate of about one bar an hour, and working on resonance in my upper range and providing good support for my singing (principally by trying to remember not to bop around with excitement while quartetting). Huge thanks to LABBS and to the Voices in Harmony Foundation, who awarded me a grant to attend Harmony College; you can read my slightly-more-sensible writeup in the upcoming edition of Voicebox magazine.
* I strapped it up and channelled the legendary Jane Ford, who broke her wrist and was back on stage with the Rosettes a couple of days later sporting a black silk sling.
** It’s all about the sevenths. Why does nobody mention the sevenths?
*** Delyth Knight described primary harmony as ‘the points where a rubbish guitarist accompanying herself would be FORCED to strum a different chord.’
**** The theme is the point of the song: lyrical (the focus of the song is the lyrics), rhythmic, harmonic or melodic.
***** Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine is a song about how they are going to sing the song, and therefore in its own theme category. This is possibly why it’s not a popular choice for quartets
****** Many thanks to Helen Ring and Alys Galloway for the delivery of this awesome tome.
Tags: a cappella, arrangements, arranging, barbershop, four part, harmony, ladies, music, singing, women
A while ago, I took part in the Goldsmith’s Earworm Project. I learned all SORTS of interesting things, including that I have a really good musical memory (I got 94% on their test for this. NINETY-FOUR. You’re DAMN right I’m proud) and that not everybody with an earworm hears the whole song playing from start to finish in their head with the backing band and everything, as if it’s on the radio. Until recently, the application of these niche skills has been restricted to correctly guessing the key for TV theme tunes before they start (nobody thinks this is clever, apart from me) and having this argument with my brother throughout our teens:
One of us: [sings pop song]
The other one: It doesn’t go like that.
I’m gradually getting used to the idea that barbershop provides the answer to all such pressing questions in my life. I’ve spent the last few months learning songs, and grumbling about bass lines, and weeping with admiration at clever arrangements (like GQ doing Samson, below). I start imagining the White Rosettes singing Two Thousand Miles, and a quartet doing Mad About The Boy (with me showing off on the bass melody, of course). Could I arrange something?
I usually give up quickly on anything that involves writing music down, because my theory is stupidly rusty. I have to count the lines to get the notes in the right places, and I’m never confident that what I’ve written is what I actually mean. Then Liz introduces me to MuseScore, which is AWESOME (and free). Put something in, play it back, see if it sounds right, adjust it till it does. Bingo. I’m OFF.
Suddenly, being able to hear all the instruments in my head, and remember exactly how everything goes, are skills that are massively useful. (The fact that I often have two earworms at once also turns out to be a plus when I start mashing up Christmas songs, but more of that another time.)
I don’t understand the technoshizzle of barbershop harmony yet (circle of fifths? Chinese sevenths?), so I start with what I know: pop songs. I tear through a couple of 70s hits and feel terribly pleased with myself. I do a bit of Louis Prima and make myself laugh.
But I also acquire a folderful of half-finished or started-but-not-really-going-anywhere stuff.
A good song turns out to be hard to find. Songs that’ll work well for the chorus need structure: verses and choruses and maybe a bridge or a middle eight, and a definite sense of drama, and a proper musical climax. I’m surprised how many of the songs I love just don’t have any of these. (Either that, or I’m turning into my Dad: ‘You call THIS music?’) Other things that make pop songs unsatisfactory include relying on an instrumental theme (Careless Whisper, unless you think your tenors will pull off saxophone impressions), having a crucially-important bass line (all 70s funk, unless your basses are happy to spend the whole song going ‘dum dum-bah dum, BAOWAH’), or featuring Inappropriate Lyrics (no sex* please, we’re barbershoppers). The range is a problem, too: I get all excited about arranging Things That Dreams Are Made Of until I realise it’s simultaneously too high for the tenors and too low for the basses.
I press on, missing lunchtimes and deadlines. Boyf: Shall we watch the cyclocross? Me: Yes! Well, give me a minute. I just have to do a bit more of this. I’ll be right there. Boys: Is tea nearly ready? Me: Um. It will be when I’ve started it.
It’s like crack. I give up on a difficult passage, then the answer appears to me in the shower and I have to run downstairs, dripping, to see if it works.
I find out that my ear plays tricks on me, not least by filling in harmonies that don’t actually exist in the song. This is excellent, as long as other people agree with me on what they are; less so if they don’t. (Liz, listening to one arrangement: Your chords are lovely, but they’re not the ones I hear. Me: Okay, here are the ones they give online**. Her: Those aren’t right either.)
In a flash of inspiration, I knock out an arrangement of the Spiderman theme over a weekend. (Me: Listen to this. I’m a GENIUS. Boiz: That’s AMAZING, Mummy.) My lovely quar-/quin-/sextet, the Remingtons, gamely agree to give it a go. They learn a little section with me playing snippets from my computer and trying to sing their parts to them.
The baritone has all the mad accidentals because that’s the Baritone Thing, and because Liz is awesome and can sing ANYTHING. (Her [looking at middle eight]: I thought you said this bit was easier? Me: Um… Her: I’ll get you for this, later.)
Then they sing the first four bars. It’s so exciting I could POP. There is NOTHING like hearing it come to life; the plinky-plonky version on the computer doesn’t prepare you for hearing people’s voices doing your stuff.
The basses get right into going ‘Spi-der, Spi-der-MAN!’, giving it some welly from the sofa. Our tenor’s stream of semitones sounds just as spooky as I’d imagined. The lead does a great job of holding all her posts. I sit there grinning my silly face off. Liz even starts directing it, which is a complete thrill: ‘Everyone needs to come in more quickly here. Let’s decide where we’re going to put the ‘t’ in ‘night’.’ We revoice the final chord. Me: ‘I want a massive great overblown glissando from this chord to that one.’ They do it. It is MAGIC.
* or religion, or politics, or innuendo
** Looking up chords online sounds like the answer, but it makes it slower; I have to look up all the notes that make up a Dm7 and write them down, then check that I have them all in the chord, then give them all to different parts because it sounds wrong, then add some other notes because it’s too boring. I go back to doing it by ear. (Chords picture is from this blog. I can’t work out how to link to it from the picture any more. Damn you, WordPress.)