Revisiting Avon Harmony

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Through the looking-glass...Through the looking-glass...Thursday evening took me down to Bristol for a follow-up visit to Avon Harmony. I last worked with them in September, and it was gratifying to both them and me that I could hear a distinct difference made by all the work they have put in during the intervening six weeks. In particular, I noticed that not only were they much better at bubbling than before, but also all the skills that bubbling develops had improved too - continuity of breath, forward placement of tone.

The balance of coaching shifted from last time so that I was working much more through their director, Alex, rather than directly with the chorus. Since we last worked together, he has developed a much more controlled and specific gestural style, losing a lot of the distractions that his energy had been introducing. There was more of a sense of technique to be refined than the raw musical intention he had previously been running on.

We found ourselves intermittently in a world of physics metaphors (which pleased Alex as a scientist). Inertia is the principle whereby it takes less energy to keep something moving than to get it moving in the first place. I always think of pushing pianos in this context, but it's equally true of rhythmic impetus. If you have an articulated pulse on each beat for four bars, you need a clear gesture to start it off, but using the same gesture for all subsequent pulses is more than you need. We also found the counterbalance useful in the relationship of gesture with voice: gesture low to facilitate high tessituras, gesture higher when the vocal lines head down.

There were two major areas of technique we worked on. The first was the distinction that Alexander Technique makes between thinking and doing. When Alex focused his attention on the musical sounds he wanted to elicit, he had a real sense of nuance and control available to him, whereas when he produced gestures as a deliberate using-a-gesture-to-make-a-particular-effect strategy, he lost control of the sound. We demonstrated this most dramatically when we had him direct with only his eyes, and he found places where the tuning had been rocky coming nicely into focus.

A nice next step from here was directing with only his eyes, except at the phrase boundaries, where he could meet the singers at the end of one phrase deliver them into the start of the next. What was effective here was that he stopped making a point of directing breaths, and simply joined the phrases together to make a song. The singers, it turns out, know how to breathe anyway - what they needed was just for the musical shape to be coordinated.

The other area of technique was finding a solution to sporadic dips in the sound. Observation suggested that these were occurring when his fingers curled inward, so we made an explicit decision to place melodic flow in his index finger and have him think of tracing the melody as if writing in cursive. (I adapted this from Mark Hale's idea of 'singing in cursive' as a way to coach quartets.)

This had a quite remarkable effect. By giving a very specific attentional location to this musical element, he suddenly had far more control over musical flow. Indeed, it wasn't long before he start feeling like he had the harmony resting in his other fingers. In the first instance, this technique elicited a much more consistent legato from the lead and tenor lines, but not so much from the lower two. So, we had him direct just baritone and bass in this way in order that he could consciously connect his hand to the melodic qualities of those two lines. Once he had that in his ears, the four parts gelled together much more convincingly.

It's always slightly frightening to me how directly and profoundly a director's gestures can affect the choral sound, but the connection is also magical resource to help both get better. Alex is still in the early phases of learning his craft, but when he can take an instruction like, 'Can you direct that vowel so it matches?' and make it work, you know he's onto something.

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