What do the basses do, exactly?

A companion piece to Properties of Magical Sectionals

Written by real-life bass, Nick ‘Steve’ Gorven.

The recent publication of Ma’am Estelle Roux’s seminal work on sectionals has resulted in an uptick of interest in the ever-mysterious basses, so I thought I’d provide a brief window into the bass way of life:

Now, many of you may know a bass. Many of you may even be friends with a bass. They’re usually a good natured rumbling noise that is difficult to locate. Sometimes you wake up in the morning thinking that your bass friend is speaking to you, before the high-pitched beeping lets you know that it’s just a truck reversing on the street outside. A bass in public, though, is vastly different to a bass among basses.

An important difference between alto sectionals and bass sectionals is the presence of ridicule. To an alto, a sectional is a space free of ridicule and a place of safety in which to sing freely. To a bass, ridiculous things are wonderful. Sometimes the ridiculous things are your fellow basses’ faces, and sometimes they’re your own repeated failures to correctly sing a specific interval. Ten attempts later, and having gone through various approaches to help you get it right*, you just dissolve into giggles and wave the rest of them on.

In bass sectionals, as in alto sectionals, writing on scores is very important. The score may not be yours, and what you write may not be strictly “helpful”, but at least you’re making an effort, right? And drawing an epic flag on an important section in Bogoroditse Dyevo is as clear a mark of emphasis as highlighting. Possibly even clearer!

All this nonsense, though, falls into the breaks (yeah, we don’t let our section leader forget those) between running through the challenging sections, planning our vowel sounds to make sure that we blend well as a voice group, and getting our timing spot on. We focus on making sure that everyone in the group is comfortable with the material that we’re covering and knows what to work on alone to prepare for our next rehearsal. Sometimes a tricky run just needs to be sung twenty times over, so we’ll do ten together and let everyone do the rest of the work at home.

A very important aspect of sectional rehearsals is the development of trust and comfort within a voice group. When singing challenging pieces, and particularly when doing so using staggered breathing, you need to understand the singers around you. It’s important to support the other members of the voice group – to compensate when others need to breathe during sustained phrases, to hold back on volume when everyone is aired up and raring to go, and to develop a natural blended sound for the voice group. Sectionals allow you to focus on your immediate voice group in achieving these goals, and once these principles are internalised you are free to focus on the music itself, rather than the mechanics of singing as a voice group.

Finally, we complete the sectional by spending a few minutes chatting about unimportant things so that we return to the main rehearsal room a couple minutes late, just to be fashionable.

* Failed approaches include:

  • “If the second-to-last note you sing is the new tonic, then it’s the fifth, an octave below”
  • “It’s just a sixth interval, do that”
  • “If you listen to the notes the rest of the choir sings after we come in, you can hear it clearly” (sure, but if I could travel back in time then a difficult interval wouldn’t be the first problem on which I would use my glorious power)