Bristol A Cappella

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Assistant director James leading the warm-upAssistant director James leading the warm-up
Tuesday night took me back down to Bristol, this time to the heart of the University district, to work with a relatively new mixed group, Bristol A Cappella. I mention the university not because the chorus is particularly connected with it (though a handful of the members are), but because their rehearsal venue is within a very few minutes’ walking distance of two of my addresses from my student days. The journey there had that odd quality of deep familiarity and strangeness you get returning to places you used to know well but have not seen for a long time.

Anyway, once inside a building I had walked past hundreds of times but never previously entered, it became much more like any normal coaching visit, with a group of willing singers and the opportunity to mess with their heads.

In the event, the head I ended up messing with the most was their director’s. Iain Hallam had the personal courage and trust in his ensemble to put working on his technique firmly on the agenda as part of our work, and that turned out to be a most productive way in to helping his singers achieve more.

One of the things you get when working with a director with the singers they direct all the time rather than at a separate training event - apart from strengthening the bond of trust between them - is the opportunity to hear very clearly that changes to your technique make. When you’re working with a group you don’t know well, this is harder, partly because of the sheer cognitive overload of working with a new set of people in a new environment at the same time as making adjustments to your technique.

When you are on your home patch, you not only have more cognitive capacity to devote to listening, but you are already intimately familiar with the baseline sound you usually elicit from the singers, so the differences are that much more apparent.

We worked on three primary areas with Iain, and were rewarded in all of them by significant improvements in the sound. First, he had imbibed the habit of bending the knees at the point of the in-breath that is so endemic particularly in the barbershop world where he cut his directing teeth. (Though it is by no means exclusive to that tradition.) This is something so many of us pick up without even noticing as part of how we feel phrase structure, but it really doesn’t help our singers.

Because the director is often not aware of doing this (and rightly so - you have to automate your bodily habits to have any headspace to pay attention to the singers), we needed a technique that would give him information about when he was doing it. Asking the singers to join in whenever they saw the knees bending is a simple and classic means to do this, and to Iain’s credit, the mere instruction to the chorus to do this cured him instantly, and the change lasted the rest of the evening. He was rewarded with greater tonal integrity, rather than leaking pitch at each breath point.

(Aside: one of the singers came up with a great metaphor for this - tonal continence/incontinence. That one is straight into my coaching vocabulary.)

The other two areas were the interlinked issues of putting too much muscle into the conducting gestures, and not enough precision into the fingers. The issues are separate inasmuch as the produce distinct effects (lack of vocal freedom and impaired synchronisation respectively), but they are connected at a level of technique in that they are both part of a need to move the conductor’s experience of the music away from the large muscle groups and down into the parts of the body where they have fine motor control. We used a variety of techniques to work through these, using the ‘Kermit Principle’ and bringing the music onto a single fingertip. Hands are not very heavy, so the upper body shouldn’t have to work too hard to carry them round the gesture space.

We also used a rather lovely kinaesthetic technique that I had seen Jim Henry use at the LABBS Directors Weekend 10 days earlier, of asking him to direct holding a bottle of water. At one level, this exercise serves simply to still the hands: you can’t flap your fingers about if you need them to hold the bottle. But the weight of the water was also a really useful kind of musical ballast; it forces you to direct in a way that doesn’t slosh the contents about. And the result is that the sound gets cleaner and less splashy too.

There was a very interesting moment during this exercise. Iain started off directing with the bottle held at mid-chest height and with the arm partially extended towards the chorus. After a few bars, I brought his hand nearer to his body and lower towards his diaphragm. The sound immediately gained more richness and resonance.

Then, when I turned away to look at the music, I heard the sound lose some of this bloom, and looked back to see the gestures had crept up and outwards again. Bringing it back down restored the depth. Hearing the change between the two states mid-song was very illuminating.

It is a both a scary and an exciting moment when you discover as a director quite how much difference you can make to your chorus’s sound by relatively subtle changes in your technique. Scary, because you realise how much power you have to spoil things; exciting because you realise how much potential for extra beauty is there right at your fingertips. It’s something we all know intellectually, but doing it for real is a whole different level of understanding. The great thing is, though, that once you have clocked this, your ears will guide you to better technique, and your singers will reward your careful listening by sorting out so many of the things you might otherwise have to invest rehearsal time into.

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