Singing and the City
I had the pleasure at the weekend of working with the London City Singers at their annual retreat. They are an unusual chorus in that the area from which they draw their members is based around where they work rather than where they live, so they all stay in London after work for rehearsals before commuting back out to all points of the compass. They are also a young chorus, in both senses of the word – having been formed only 4 years ago, and with members primarily between the ages of 21 and 35.
We used the first session of the weekend, on Friday evening, for looking at big-picture questions - setting the main agendas for the music we were working on. This meant that we all had the chance to reflect on them overnight before following through their implications into the detail of specific performance decisions during Saturday’s day-long session. Whilst we probably didn’t get as much done as people do on a retreat that takes up two full days, I think this structure was actually very effective for the time expended – and still left a day free for the singers to catch up with themselves and rest before heading back into the working week.
The big-picture questions revolved around the interrelationships between rhythm, tempo, characterisation and body language. On one hand there was a slow swing ballad that really needed to sit back on the beat if it was to maintain its laid-back tempo without speeding up. On the other there was a 1920s Charleston-feel song that need the energy at the front of the beat if it wasn’t going lose speed. Getting the singers’ centres of gravity set up for each was key to capturing these two contrasting rhythmic flavours, with the weight much more on the back foot for the slow throb, and onto the toes for the skittish up-tune. This in turn interacted with the sense of characterisation for each: experienced seductress for one, dizzy-headed young love for the other.
And once you’ve got these macro decisions made, two things happen with the detail. The first is that the singers bring out a whole bunch of expressive possibilities off their own bat, as the rhythmic characterisation has revealed opportunities that suddenly come naturally. The second is that the other details – the ones that still need a bit of teasing out – now have a conceptual context, so they aren’t just a list of instructions, but make sense in a broader expressive context. It’s what actors call motivation: what is the internal process that makes the character speak the line the playwright gives them?
I’ve written before about the way a performer has two parts to their role, the manager and the communicator, in the context of how an arranger can help the communicator get on the job without needing too much intervention from the manager. And it’s a similar challenge with coaching or directing – you don’t want people to be carrying a huge checklist of performance instructions in their head as they sing, you want them to be doing things well because they have an implicit understanding of how it all fits together.
The other major achievement of the weekend was finishing notes artistically. It’s such a simple thing to say, and it makes such a difference, but actually it takes a particular mental switch in your relationship with what you’re singing. This thing is, when we speak, we don’t really pay attention to a word once our mouth is on the case with speaking it – we focus on the sense of the message and just trust our mouths to get on with getting all the requisite word sounds out in the right order.
But when we’re singing, there’s that whole melodic dimension as well as the lyric sense, and it needs nurturing all the way through the note. When you sing a note, and pursue it right to its very end – either into the next note, or into the breath point, depending on context – it’s amazing how much more expressive it is that when you just start it then leave it to its own devices. And when the London City Singers made that mental switch and heard the result it produced, they got a light in their eyes which suggests they’re going to enjoy exploring the dramatic and emotional possibilities it offers them.