Sunday, 25 June 2017

Choral Chameleon Institute: Day 2

After the baptism of fire that seemed to be the first day of the Institute, safe to say the second day felt a little bit calmer, with everything seeming to seep in a little bit more and ideas beginning to grow.

Are you scared yet?....
I began my morning with another ear training session, which was not as hair raising as I had expected it might be - the day before we all had a short assessment of our aural skills, which was a little intimidating, but this mornings sessions was just the right amount of 'I know how to do this' and 'hmmm, that was a little more challenging than I thought!' - One particular exercise which was a little bamboozling was a two part rhythm exercise, where we were singing the top line, and clapping the bottom line. As a self-accompanied singer I thought I'd have this down, but alas the odd corner or two was seeming to throw me off! It took a few goes to figure out the best way for my brain to handle it, that's for sure - can I put that down to it being morning and the coffee not kicking in yet?.... I'm going to go with yes....
- For the rest of the morning we were treated to a master class with David Dabbon, who works as a vocal arranger for broadway musicals, and even Disney! This was a HUGE treat, especially for me as a musical theatre nerd - as a composer I also spend my 'downtime' between writing my own choral music arranging choral music, quite often from the rock, pop and musical theatre genres, so it was great to get the insight and tips and tricks from someone who actually does it for a living, and clearly, very successfully! One of the biggest considerations, particularly for musicals is how heavily dance features in the number in question - for example, if you listen to the title number of 'Oklahoma' there is a lot of complex harmonies going on - not surprisingly, this is a number which is done with the actors just standing and singing. In a number where there's a huge dance break, in a well written arrangement you'll notice that the singing comes back in in unison, or with the soloist featured so the chorus can catch a breath. Another interesting statement David made was that, "If your writing is good enough then it doesn't matter how good the singers are!" - which is a really, REALLY good point to consider!

One thing this institute has been full of the 'inspirational quote', most often supplied by the course director Vince Peterson - one that has particularly resonated with me is; "Don't over think! There is beauty in simplicity! Go with your instincts!" - This is a great statement for me, as I've often wondered if my compositions are 'complex' enough, or 'sophisticated enough' - but it really is true that sometimes, less is indeed more. Another great quote came from David Dabbon (who was actually quoting someone else), to round off his masterclass:

"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes - art is knowing which ones to keep" 

After the lunch break it was back to the conducting for me, and boy, what a difference a day makes! After my slightly flustered start yesterday I spent some time with the score back in my apartment, just singing through each line, noticing the dynamics, any tempo changes, key moments etc. When I got up to conduct today I certainly felt much more at ease, and Vince even commented on how much more musical my piece was sounding, which is a big boost. Until you've actually tried to conduct, you have absolutely no idea of the intricate techniques required to do it well - it is SO much more than just flapping your arms around in time to the music! As pretty much a novice conductor I really am getting a huge body of knowledge thrown at me, and the biggest insight I've learned is that 'conducting is just a series of preparations' - it is all about being, literally, one step ahead of the game! It's also great to watch Tegan, the other student conductor at this institute, as I'm learning so much from watching her session as well as participating in my own.

Not a bad view from my 'classroom'...
Following on from my conducting session it was time to dash over to the choir loft for my composition lesson. As I'm the only participant doing both composing and conducting, my time management this week is somewhat spectacular! It's also unsurprising that I hadn't managed to get any notation on the go yet for this lesson, but I had managed to do some sketches relating to the two texts I was umming and ahhing between. If you're unfamiliar with the term, composers will often sketch out their ideas for their pieces, and there is no set way to do this - each composer will have their own way of doing it which reflects their process and their ideas. For me, this can include what I call 'harmony stacking', in which I write chord pattern ideas with letters in columns, melodic riffs, and in this particular case, a diagram of the proposed structure of the piece, which I often do by using block lines to signify parts moving together, and interweaving wiggly lines to represent parts moving across each other. From this sketching I can then start to 'noodle' on the piano, trying out melodic ideas or chord progressions, and the piece starts to develop from there. Safe to say Jeff (my tutor) was happy with my sketched ideas, and even said he might steal my sketching process to use himself, which is nice to hear! I'm certainly looking forward to my piece starting to develop now.

A hugely productive day at the Choral Chameleon Institute - I'm very much enjoying the positive vibe here at St Paul's. There's an excellent balance of focus and fun, as well as the hugely encouraging personas of each of the staff. So, it's time to get back to work, which in my case means translating scribbles into notated music and practicing my conductor arms in the mirror! #nerdalert

There beautiful evening light on St Paul's church

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