Bristol Week, Part 3
Thursday evening saw final episode of my trio of visits to Bristol, this time to work Avon Harmony and their new director Alex de Bruin. It must be at least six years since I last coached the chorus, but I was still greeted like a long-lost friend. And the club chair had baked a cake; I like her leadership style.
We covered a varied range of both vocal and musical areas during the evening, making it one of those sessions that feels hard to summarise. One theme that emerged in more than one context, though, was the idea that it's okay to be not-yet-skilled at something - in fact, better to dive on in an achieve it only intermittently than use a work-around that produces a competent half-way version.
The classic one here is holding your cheeks in while you bubble. As work-arounds go, it's okay to start you off, though you actually get much more benefit from the exercise by trying to bubble without it and only managing in fits and starts. You'll find that over time your one-second bursts gradually lengthen into 4-second bursts, and then one day you notice that you can do half a phrase at a time without interruption.
Likewise, with standing on one leg. The point of doing this is get you standing actively, so if you have to keep touching the other to the ground to adjust your balance, you are getting the benefit of the exercise. If you keep one toe from the other foot constantly on the ground as a prop, you neither get the support for your singing the exercise should provide, nor get better at standing on one leg. It's in doing the things that we can't yet achieve that we grow in skill.
Another theme was working with Alex on his directing technique. He is an energetic director, which brings life and momentum to the singing, but needs to find ways to channel that energy so as not to lose control of the sound. The key here was in moving the action to his ears rather than his arms, for him to place his focus on attending to the sound rather than broadcasting his intentions to the chorus.
We used various exercises to help in this process, including straight coaching of gesture to keep the posture stiller and the shoulders more relaxed (which, interestingly, helped him hear more detail in itself), and directing standing on one leg (which revealed that the place where the sound had been going out of focus was also the place where his gestures were tending to overbalance him).
At one point, he described the experience of directing with his eyes closed as, 'I found I was concentrating less...though I was concentrating more...I was concentrating on different things.' I thought I'd share this as it strikes me as a rather perceptive observation about the way the director's effectiveness is underpinned by their attention. There is so much one can focus on in such a complex activity, but it's the act of hearing that is the single most important for the success of the ensemble.
One other experience we had that I thought was worth sharing was in a song with a driving rhythm that had sometimes been, well, coasting rather than driving. We did a considerable amount of high-energy work to get everyone fully involved in the underlying pulsing of the micro-rhythms that underpin the whole song. And when we did this, the tonal centre stayed true instead of sinking. I don't know why energy loss or maintenance in one dimension (rhythm) should result in a parallel loss or maintenance in another (pitch), but it is observably true that it does. So if you're having tonal centre issues, it's worth checking out how faithful you are being to the tempo and rhythm.