Bristol Week, Part 2

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FRsep12My second coaching visit to the Bristol area came on Saturday, when I spent the day with Fascinating Rhythm, based just north of the city. In my last visit, we had been exploring David Wright’s arrangement of ‘South Rampart Street Parade’; this was on the agenda again, as was Rob Campbell’s arrangement of ‘Once Upon a Time’.

Our first major theme for the day was integration, in both musical and performative senses.

In the musical dimension, the task was strengthen the rhythmic framework to connect together the song’s series of sometimes quite short phrases. There was a lot of effective detail within the phrases, but the silences between were not always enlivened as strongly.

One technique we used for this was tapping the pulse whilst singing, not only at the levels of beat and bar, but also of the subdivided beat, and in two-bar and four-bar units. The micro-levels are needed to keep the fast notes precise and the long notes engaged, whilst the macro-levels are needed to help the brain arc over longer stretches of musical time. After working through each level in turn, we mixed them up so that people could practise shunting their attention between different levels, and experience multiple levels at once.

Another technique we used was to designate five or so people at a time as the rhythm section with the task of tch-tch-ing out a side-drum rhythm while the others sang. This revealed places both where they had been taking a bit too much time (typically between phrases or during long notes) and where they had been tending to rush slightly (typically where there were fast notes).

Interestingly, the chorus was doing a great job of tempo maintenance – not fast, not slow – and were generally singing together well, so it wasn’t a performance you would immediately have labelled as rhythmically adrift, just in need of a bit more pizzazz. Tightening up the precision, however, and investing the song with a sense of longer-term rhythmic continuity just brought the whole to life.

In a different dimension, the choreography was also feeling a bit atomised. The moves made sense in both local detail and overall dramatic trajectory, but weren’t quite having as much as an impact as they deserved. We talked a little about how if you rehearse at less than full throttle, you get really good at performing a little under par.

This produced performances in which the faces were fully engaged, but the bodies not always as much. So we used Judy Pozsgay’s concept of starting all movements in the core to get the bodies as believably integrated into the song as the faces were. The transformation was visually dramatic and immediate, and likewise gave an extra layer of richness and resonance to the sound.

The interrelation of voice and body is not a surprise here; it is something that’s built into the way Judy Pozsgay teaches the method. And I am used to making connections between continuity of attention through a musical line and the continuity of breath in singing long phrases. What remains as little more than a hunch here is the relationship between the integration of the body choreographically, and the integration of rhythmic units musically. Is there any essential experiential connection here in performance, or is it just a metaphorical connection between roughly comparable concepts in different domains?

One of my personal crusades – which we had started work on together last year – is to help people make a song’s breath points integral to the narrative. I have written before about the idea of the ‘thought point’ – that you’re drawing breath not to fuel your lungs, but to hatch the idea that will unfold in the next phrase – and about how paraphrase can help understand the conceptual structure of a phrase.

But Saturday’s major penny-drop moment was about how the breath that comes just before a place where you could change the words is a breath where you need to decide to sing those words. Yes, you’re likely to sing those words because that’s what the songwriter(s) have provided, but for the persona of the song, they could sing anything there. And these are the moments where a listener hearing things for the first time can be more engaged as they don’t know what you’re going to sing next.

So we had:

South Rampart Street….rubbish collection
South Rampart Street….parking restrictions on a Sunday
South Rampart Street….Residents Association Annual Dinner and AGM

And in a different context:

Once Upon a Time, a boy with moonlight in his eyes…did up his shoe laces
Once Upon a Time, a boy with moonlight in his eyes…put his hand on my knee

The breath-points arise from the musical structures, but in the narrative structure, they’re not hiatuses, but pivot points in the story. Once you’ve thought about what other ways it would be possible to continue, the breath takes on the specific meaning of the act of deciding which, of the myriad ways the story could continue, it actually will.

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