HU2015: Part 1
Wednesday night in Nashville: halfway done with Harmony University 2015. This year I’m back as a director, having attended for coaching with my quartet Constellation last year.
Vocal pedagogy for music leaders (Steve Scott)
So far, this has mostly been a review of acoustics and anatomy of the vocal tract, although there have been several interesting points that were new (or valuable reminders) for me:
- If I ever learned the actual definition of formant, I had forgotten it. But here it is, paraphrased: a peak in the graph of amplitude as a function of frequency, corresponding to a harmonic overtone.
- The largest available resonating space is in the back of the mouth, behind the tongue. That was not news to me, but I hadn’t recognized the implication that raising the tongue — provided that the tip is kept forward and low — creates more space at the back, and that a low tongue position is counterproductive (and also creates tension). More precisely, the first formant is created behind the tongue.
- Similarly, opening the jaw wide tends to reduce space at the back of the mouth — also counterproductive.
- Raising the soft palate any more than is needed (to close the nasal port) causes tongue tension. Huh.
- Warm-up exercises that use tongue or lip trills, humming, or singing through a straw — partially occluding the vocal tract above the larynx — are useful because they reduce the level of subglottic air pressure needed to vibrate the vocal folds.
Good info so far.
You should see what you sound like! (Cindy Hansen-Ellis)
All about ensemble image and branding. This is similar to the first course I took with Cindy, a few years back.
Today’s highlight was a presentation from Matt Gifford and Will Hunkin of the Musical Island Boys, about their quartet’s process of establishing their image, brand, and repertoire, from 2000 (when they were still in HS) to the present. They’ve done well.
- Identify what your group does well.
- Choose repertoire and plan sets that play to those strengths.
- Consider your musical and stylistic influences.
- Consider what words describe the group you are and the group you want to be.
- Make changes — discard songs, find new outfits, etc. — when you realize things aren’t working.
None of this sounds like rocket science, but it requires attention to subtle details and, fundamentally, honest self-examination.
History of barbershop II (David Wright)
I really enjoy listening to David Wright’s lectures. He’s put together slides to cover the early history of barbershop (in the prereq course) and the history from the 1950s to present, and done several things right that a lot of lecturers wouldn’t:
- The slides are mostly visuals with minimal text.
- He makes great use of anecdotes about the people involved in the style and the organization’s decisions.
- He plays audio (and video, where possible) to show the character of each group and the evolution of the style.
- He inserts breaks periodically — maybe one every 15–20 minutes; I’d like to space these a tad more frequently — in the form of tags for us to sing. This is great, because it associates each tag — many of which are old favorites that we already know — with the quartet and time period that popularized it.
This doesn’t lend itself as well to a bullet list (unless I wanted to list trivia, which I don’t), but there’s at least one obvious overarching theme: The hallmarks of the style have remained consistent, although the Society went through significant changes in popular vocal style and music choices, and the judging system was, for a time, far more restrictive than it is today. (The rules even went so far as to have a list of permissible chord progressions for ending a song. Yow. I’m glad that’s changed.)
Private instruction and other fun stuff
This year the schedule’s a lot more relaxed, and I like that. The morning classes are a lot shorter, and instead of cramming so much into the day, we’re simply given three scheduled classes and the option of attending additional hour-long “electives” during the lunch hours and in the evening. So far I’ve attended three:
- “Parody writers unite!” This was a panel discussion, with Shane and Eddie of Lunch Break and Steve Armstrong of Toronto Northern Lights.
- “Comedy is serious business.” Jim Clark of Storm Front gave a talk about the work that went into developing his quartet’s sets, and the difficulties of comedy. I got to this one late, and it was mostly a Q&A session (at least by the time I got there). Jim’s entertaining even without the quartet, and some of the problems are already quite familiar.
- “Arrange to perform.” Tonight Clay Hine (FRED, A Mighty Wind, Atlanta Vocal Project) gave a talk about his process of arranging, and the importance of having a story or a performance in mind while preparing an arrangement. This resonated with me; I realized that for what I consider my most effective charts — Older, Poisoning Pigeons, and Lucky Day / Innocent When You Dream — I did have a clear (if unspoken) sense of what story was being told. I don’t think I’ll ever make a habit of writing a story plan or performance-script-ish thing prior to writing a chart, but I will certainly consider it.
I also have had two private instruction sessions so far:
- Yesterday I met with Wayne Grimmer of Round ’Midnight, and we discussed my arrangement of the Pogues’ Thousands Are Sailing. Wayne had helpful suggestions about harmonies and form; I put in several hours last night, afterwards, and the chart still needs work, mostly on the macro scale. I suspect that thinking about a performance plan or story, as Clay suggested in his class, will help a lot with the issues here.
- Today I met with Larry Bean Dodge to work on my conducting; we used Smile, which I’ve been teaching to GSC this summer. This was a short, focused session with four great points to take home:
- Touch releases. I’ve been using circle releases more than I’d like, mainly because I’ve never been taught to do a proper touch release. Which led to the concept of…
- …the “breath button”, a stupidly simple but useful way to think about touch releases, and a potentially useful tool for getting the chorus to sync their breaths: have them reach out to tap an imaginary button every time they take a breath.
- The joint that drives the gesture: wrist? elbow? shoulder? clavicular joint? We found I tend to favor the shoulder joint, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but some — most? — of the needless busy-ness Larry saw in my conducting was the result of letting multiple joints drive gestures simultaneously. So I will work on consciously choosing a joint — shoulder, at first — and making the other joints’ movement subordinate to that one’s.
- And, to direct from the shoulder, a simple idea: “The ictus is just above your elbow.” I’ve always visualized the ictus as being the landing point for my wrist; it’s understandable that this would conflict with directing from the shoulder.
Tomorrow, a private voice lesson with Jim DeBusman.
One last note: I’ve been studying Swedish, but haven’t yet talked with any Swedes at HU this year. There aren’t as many as in previous years. I want to learn more words relevant to vocal music. So far I have kör (choir), bas (bass), baryton (baritone), tenor (obvious), sjunger (sing), sång (song), and körledare (choir-leader). I hesitate to use this last because it’s one of several I learned from Google Translate; I’m much more comfortable using something once I’ve encountered it “in the wild”.
All in all, a fine week so far.