Bristol A Cappella Again

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BACfeb16After my day with Silver Lining last Saturday, I headed off down to Bristol on the Sunday for another day with Bristol A Cappella. This time we were in a different venue again, but still in the same area, and yet again it was one I had walked past pretty much every day of my undergraduate life without ever stepping inside. I can report that Bristol Grammar School has a nicely-equipped drama studio.

Turn-out on this occasion was a bit lower than anticipated, which meant that the singers who were there had to work rather harder than usual. The challenge in these circumstances is both musical (the safety net that usually rescues you if you make a mistake is sparser, so you have to do more for both yourself and your fellows) and also as a consequence psychological (you feel more exposed and thus less confident). The very sonic envelope around you is smaller, you feel less cuddled by the music.

The pay-off, of course, is twofold. First, those singers get to feel commensurately more pleased with themselves about what they achieve during the day - not only have they worked harder for it, but are there fewer people with whom to share the credit. Second, that harder work will deliver them deeper learning, and thus more assured skills for the longer term.

We spent most of the morning on a ballad they will be performing at the mid-Somerset Festival in March. Their director Iain had recently realised that over the weeks and months they have been rehearsing it, it had been incrementally slowing down. Each moment on which they were lingering was beautiful in its own right, but all together they added up to a delivery that was starting to attenuate the flow of the musical narrative too much. Of course, once people have embedded this felt shape into their emotional relationship with the song, it takes a little work to change the pacing - it’s not just moving it on a bit, it’s asking people to reimagine the story.

So, we approached it from several angles. First, we did some duetting. Time on this is always time well spent, and increasing the singers’ insight into how the music all fits together gives a securer footing on which to build the changes. Next we played with the tempo in a classic Inner Game: Will format. Although they will be performing it in a rubato style, their shaping is near enough to the written metre that they can sing it in time, and thus at different speeds. Different people gave us a count of four to start, and we had to sing at whatever tempo they gave us, thus asserting conscious control over the pacing. (This also functioned as the ‘unfreeze’ phase in Kotter’s model of change, now I come to think of it. The difficulty before had been trying to make the transformation without unfreezing first.)

The third tactic was then to change Iain’s directing so that he left the singers to it at all the places where they were confidently managing the musical flow, and only direct the bits where he needed to help them move it on. You can see this as either giving the singers more space to own the music, or requiring them to take more responsibility for the forward motion - both are equally valid descriptions of the process, from slightly different perspectives. It also made it much more visible when Iain’s gestures were salient. By removing all ‘business as usual’ direction, the ‘pay particular attention right now’ gestures could be effective without having to ‘shout’ for attention, which could lead to over-conducting.

A related concept that I invited Iain to play with (as an incidental point during our afternoon’s work on the expressive shape of their up-tune) is that of ‘flat-lining’. That is, while conducting a phrase in which all bars are in a regular metre and the musical flow is basically looking after itself, you should make the pattern for each bar a bit smaller than the last. Then, when something new happens, reverting to your normal size pattern commands attention.

This is one of those ideas that you don’t see very much reference to in the conducting literature, but is documented rather wonderfully by Teresa Marrin Nakra in her PhD thesis. (Part of it is online here, though unfortunately not the bit I am actually citing!) Her study involves empirical measurements of various physiological processes (muscular tension, heart rate etc) in both student and professional conductors, and comes up with all kinds of interesting conclusions about what conductors do, and what features are found in better conductors. Her findings show how expert conductors progressively minimise repeated gestures until new information appears; there is a rather wonderful correlation between her data on muscular activity and musical structures.

This is a useful tip for the conductor as it both enhances the communicativeness of their gestures and conserves their energies. You’re welcome :-)

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