London A Cappella (1): Teaching, Listening, Learning, Singing
Creative Workshop for student a cappella groups
presented by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange (singer, arranger, choral coach & former soprano/MD of The Swingle Singers)
Over forty members of various student a cappella groups (from Oxford, Cambridge, London and Birmingham) came together for a fun two hours of discussion, exploration of ideas, creativity and performance as part of the London A Cappella Festival 2011. My aim for the workshop was to show the participants how to be more adventurous and original when writing arrangements and putting together their set-lists for the annual Voice Festival UK competition. As a regular adjudicator for the competition I am always encouraging the students to expand their creativity but it occurred to me at the end of last year’s rounds that perhaps they needed more than encouragement; they needed to be furnished with the tools in order to do so. So, I was delighted when the Voice Festival invited me to deliver a creative workshop.
In order to think beyond a typical twelve-minute set comprising a medium tempo pop cover, a ballad pop cover and a fast pop cover to finish, I first encouraged the singers to think about where else they can find raw material apart from the current pop charts. They came up with folk songs, jazz standards, big band numbers, musical theatre, world music, old pop classics and classical music. We then discussed different approaches to writing arrangements, ranging from simple transcription to the more complex style morphs, medleys and “mash-ups” (to use the Glee terminology!) I played them excerpts of recordings by professional a cappella groups including The Real Group, The Magnets, The King’s Singers and of course The Swingle Singers, each one illustrating a specific arranging technique. We then sang an arrangement I wrote for The Swingle Singers which combines two songs from The Beatles’ Abbey Road album: Because and You never give me your money. Despite most of the students admitting that they’d never heard the originals, they managed the arrangement brilliantly, creating an instant blend and quickly taking on board any rehearsal points I made along the way.
By this stage of the workshop, the students’ minds were buzzing with ideas and I could see that they were itching to get creative. I quickly familiarised them with the words, melody and harmonic structure of English folk song Scarborough Fair and then divided them up into four groups, making sure to mix up the singers so that they were working alongside people they didn’t previously know. The task was for each group to come up with its own take on the song, either a whole structure or just a groove, a musical idea, something original which would make the song their own. For about twenty minutes the students, all in different rooms, tried out their ideas until they came up with something to share with the others. It was wonderful to watch them working and being so free with their creativity and, best of all, the four approaches couldn’t have been more varied.
Group 1 gave us an upbeat drum-‘n’-bass groove; group 2 did a 5/4 Dave Brubeck-inspired version; group 3 created an Indian tabla rhythm and an improvised Bollywood-style vocalise, changing the lyrics of the second line from “Parsley sage rosemary and thyme” to “Cumin coriander and lime”!; group 4 presented us with a heady mix of vocal overtones, beat-boxing and fresh-sounding pop. I loved that, when asked to describe their creative processes, they replied, “Well, first he [pointing] came up with that and then she [pointing] sort of added that” etc – they didn’t know each other’s names and yet they had managed to work together and come up with a performance twenty minutes later! Judging by their comments afterwards, I think they surprised themselves by the quality of what they’d done. By the end of the night, many of the participants had also been to see The Real Group live; if that wasn’t enough to inspire their creativity then nothing will!!
I’m so looking forward to being on the judging panel for the Oxford regional and the final of the Voice Festival UK 2011 competition this spring. Who knows, maybe we’ll be awarding the Ward Swingle Award for Originality this year…
To all the students: happy creating; to The Real Group: thank you for continuing to wow us all with your incredible originality; to my beloved Swingle Singers: thank you for setting up the most amazing forum for a cappella which is The London A Cappella Festival.
Joanna Forbes L’Estrange
For edited highlights of this workshop, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4m89WB1d53Q
Thank you very much, Joanna for your workshop write-up – when I more or less bumped into you in the lobby at King’s Place, you seemed to be full of adrenaline, so excited how well the workshop went and how much the students gave back to you. Keep on doing this very important part of our campaign to promote the art form of vocal, choral and a cappella music: teach, listen, learn and sing everybody!
If you have ideas on educational topics and want to share experiences feel free to post your comments – let the community know how you teach, listen, learn and sing.
FSt/Florian, Vocal Blog