I go to HARMONY COLLEGE

April 19, 2016 at 11:53 am | Posted in barbershop, barbershop, music | Leave a comment
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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.

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The boiz realised I was nervous and gave me this to wear

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).

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The Mix, giving it the beans

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.

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Liz taking notes on how her part goes for the tag. This may be cheating #baritones

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.

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Tools of the trade… Everything I need to know is in this book****** [clears diary] [cracks knuckles]

* 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.

 

I do some ARRANGING

January 21, 2016 at 11:25 am | Posted in barbershop, music | 1 Comment
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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.)

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These are not the chords I’m looking for. Or are they? Who knows?

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.)

 

I go to a BARBERSHOP RETREAT and it changes my life

June 15, 2015 at 9:07 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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Retreat. The word suggests a place of calm and contemplation; of quiet solitude and peaceful reflection. The odd hushed conversation. Maybe a bit of yoga. Line dancing doesn’t normally spring to mind. But the White Rosettes’ retreats are no ordinary retreats.

As you know, Providence intervened a few weeks ago and propelled me towards the White Rosettes, the WINNINGEST chorus in British ladies’ barbershop. (Providence: ‘Stop carrying on about how you’d kill to do barbershop, and GO. Go ON. For heavens. This is getting really boring.’) This turned out to be excellent timing, as I just managed to sneak under the wire for the Retreat, where the Rosettes get together for an intensive weekend of singing and learning and chatting and bonding and probably wine.

Our guest educator/ animator/ sorcerer for the weekend was Steve Jamison. We’re heading towards LABBS Convention in October (the big annual competition for British ladies’ barbershop choruses and quartets), and Steve’s visit was part of our preparation for this. Industrial espionage is RIFE in barbershop, so there are lots of things I’m not allowed to write about. I won’t be telling you about how we’ve made enormous strides in [REDACTED] or how all the chorus are really excited about [REDACTED] or how Steve is just simply unbelievably amazing at getting us to [REDACTED]. It’s a good job, really, as I’m not sure I can put much of it into words. Steve’s guidance, interpreted and applied by Sally, made us sing entirely differently; it moved us on in ways we’re still struggling to fathom. Steve was the catalyst; Sally was the conduit; and blimey, magic happened. I mean, it really did.

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Line dancing to loosen us up. Note me, going off-piste. This is not what you do in barbershop. No sir

I can’t tell you the intricacies of what we went through, so you’ll have to make do with my scrambled, half-parsed reflections. But I feel like I’ve found my spiritual home. As someone who blesses her smartphone every day because it means I don’t have to talk to anyone in the school playground, I can’t believe I feel so comfortable in this group of people I barely know. Liz says barbershop’s the perfect hobby for a control freak; rehearsals are a heady combination of obsessive attention to detail, and everyone cackling like Sid James. But there’s more to it. These are special people: outgoing enough to want to perform, but lacking ego. Barbershop choruses have no stars*, no soloists; no first and second strings. The aim is the polar opposite: to create a sound where nobody sticks out, where the blend is so seamless that it sounds like one voice.**

There’s something about a shared endeavour. I was struck by how many women came and started conversations with me in my first few weeks, and offered me advice and support, and made me laugh, and made me feel like it was all within my grasp. Competition – which seemed so odd at the beginning – is a straightforward, powerful motivator. Instead of vaguely hoping we’re going to be ready for a concert in a month or two, we’re thinking in terms of scores. Can we improve on last time? This bit’s good, but can it be even better? How do we make the judges drop their pencils altogether?

But it’s also about sharing peak experiences. At one point, singing a ballad, we were trying to apply something new. About two-thirds of the way through, I could suddenly sense the thrill as the whole chorus realised how brilliant we were sounding. The energy was insane. My shoulders started to shake. Sally released the music, barely able to speak. ‘Five minutes. Get out of here.’ Liz and I had a good Barbershop Hug™ and a bit of a cry. Other people drifted by, red-eyed. Someone smiled and gave us a tissue. High points like these I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

My latest theory is we are designed to sing barbershop. That’s how it feels. In the same way that discovering your own relaxed, natural running pace makes you feel like you could keep going for ever (Margaret and Liz gave each other ‘What’s she on about?’ looks at this point), barbershop, done properly, simply makes the best of what we have naturally. The whole spectrum of women’s voices is there; you find your place in the chorus according to your natural resonance and range. There are no People Who Have A Voice and people who don’t. You breathe and sing naturally, neutrally; if you don’t feel like you’re trying, you’re doing it right. Your body moves, easily, as you sing. You sing for other people; to captivate and entertain. And those raging harmonics, the overtones and undertones from singing in close harmony, and the buzz in your ears… they’re just Mother Nature showing you what VERY good work you’re doing.

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Lovely delicious delightful White Rosettes. I am going to hug everyone individually on Wednesday

* Apart from Sally, of course, who should be a DBE at the very least by now

** There’s a whole branch of necromancy around the ‘stacking’ of voices on the risers. Swap singers about, and you can hear the difference immediately. It’s nuts.

I do some one-woman barbershop*

June 1, 2015 at 3:50 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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My first bash at arranging (well, partly improvising) this marvellous song, for four parts. I couldn’t work out how to listen to something I’d already recorded while I was singing another part, so I just listened to a metronome to keep in time while recording each part separately. I’m quite ridiculously pleased with how it came out.

* I’m aware that this arrangement probably violates all the Rules Of Barbershop, but, you know. Baby steps

I do some BARBERSHOP

May 20, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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Every now and then, it seems like someone is trying to tell you something. Ages ago, I went to a barbershop singing weekend at lovely Benslow Music, and came away besotted. But I was pregnant, and having small boys charging about turned out to be a lot more complicated than I was anticipating, and I never did anything about it.

Fast-forward ten years, and a series of almost-chance encounters leads me back. Sarah, my singing teacher, persuades me to go to the women’s singing group by telling me Liz, the leader, is a barbershop freak. I somehow inveigle myself into Liz’s quar-/quin-/sextet, the Remingtons, and spend a few weeks happily stumbling my way through Mr Sandman and Ain’t She Sweet? and feeling chuffed to have met this bunch of lovely people. And then one Wednesday, Liz takes me to a White Rosettes rehearsal.

The legendary White Rosettes. They’re the WINNINGEST chorus in British ladies’ barbershop. I mean, they win EVERYTHING. Here they are, winning in 2013:

Well. I’ve never been to any kind of practice and heard something that already sounded so perfect. Even the warmups seem impossibly complex and beautiful: cascading harmonies, perfect pitch shifts. The director gives out soft, rapid-fire points and tips and ideas and explanations. Everyone is alert. There’s no ‘Right, come on everybody, are we ready?’ Everyone just IS. They apply what Sally says immediately. There are words I don’t understand, explanations of how to produce a phrase or a sound. Everyone seems unfazed.

There’s something compelling about ladies’ barbershop. Not only is close-harmony singing the absolute BOMB, but there’s a place for everyone. From deep bass tones to stratospheric high notes, the whole range of women’s voices is there. Each barbershop part has its own special role. Leads carry the tune without overwhelming everyone else; they’re the hook that everything hangs on. Tenors soar above the lead, giving the mix that unmistakable barbershop ring. Baritones are the brains of the operation, weaving around the lead with mad intervals and counterintuitive harmonies. Basses are the corset of the barbershop sound, keeping everyone grounded and supported.

They’re working on a song with fiendish words, cross-cutting syncopated rhythms, tempo shifts from dead-slow to rattling-along and several changes of key. And did I mention the choreography? People strut and act, dance and merge in formation across the stage, like the Red Arrows, while staying pitch-perfect. Um. How do they do that?

And however impressive it looks on video, it’s phenomenal live. This clean sound. The perfect tuning. The ring. The harmonics. The buzzing in your ears. After the break, Sally introduces me, and the whole chorus turns to face me, sitting in my orange plastic seat, and sings to me. ‘You are welcome as the flowers in May…’ It’s like being the receiver in the middle of a satellite dish. The focused sound makes my heart try to leap out of my chest. Tears pour down my face.

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The White Rosettes in rehearsal. This picture from Liz Garnett’s excellent blog, Helping You Harmonise (click to go there)

Afterwards, we hang around chatting while the trainees do their appraisals (singing songs they’ve been given to learn, to see if they’re ready to move on). Then Sally appears. ‘Come on, then, Alison.’ There’s something of the charismatic leader about Sally: if she’d said, ‘Right, take off all your clothes and jump into the lake,’ I’m pretty sure I would have done it. Thankfully, she is just auditioning me. Wait, what?

OK, I knew this was possible. I’d spent quite a lot of the rehearsal thinking, ‘Could I do this? I couldn’t do this. Damn, I really want to, though. But, argh. I’m not up to it.’

But there I was. OK, then. The audition’s simple: sing up the scale as far as you can, then down as far as you can. Sing Happy Birthday. That’s it. Sally: ‘Well, this is where I do my spiel about how we’re only looking for basses at the moment…’ Everyone laughs. She grins. ‘So, I’d like to welcome you to the White Rosettes as a bass.’

HOLY CRAP. I AM IN THE WHITE ROSETTES.

Sally compliments me on my resonance. I manage to squeak, ‘Thank you.’ I turn round and Liz engulfs me in a hug.

I sit in shock all the way home. What have I done? A large glass of wine, and I’m starting to feel a bit less terrified. That night, I dream that I’m trying to leap aboard a speeding car. By the next morning, I’m grinning like an idiot. I’M IN THE WHITE ROSETTES. I spend the next two days learning When I Lift Up My Head. The 9yo interrupts me singing along with the CD: ‘That’s AMAZING.’ The boyf bounces in: ‘I was listening to you upstairs. You sound great!’

COME ON, WEDNESDAY. COME OOOON.

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