Back to the City
Tuesday night saw me returning to the London City Singers for a refresher on the things we’d worked on at their retreat back in February. This gave me another chance to learn about how people retain things we’ve worked on together – a central part of my ongoing quest to become ever more effective as a coach, and to understand the inner workings of my fellow singers.
The first thing I noticed was that lots of the detail we’d worked on last time was securely into the performance – inflections, colour changes, elements of phrase shaping. As they sang through the package for the first time, I repeatedly had the thought: ‘Oh yes, I’d forgotten that!’ What was less immediately apparent were the more visceral or embodied elements of what we had worked on: where the weight was balanced, and how that affected vocal colour. This came back very quickly when we started working on it – while it was not yet an embedded part of what the singers were doing, they had retained the skills and could access them when triggered to do so.
It probably isn’t a coincidence that I also observed that the director’s copy of the music was meticulously and copiously annotated with a lot of the details we had worked on last time. It was a very impressive follow-up job, indeed, capturing all sorts of moments, whether technical, imagistic or emotional. So what I learned from this is that annotating on the score is an excellent way to retain the kind of things that can be annotated, but is less effective for things that are more to do with a holistic or kinaesthetic relationship with the song.
Steve Jamison has described musical learning as ‘understanding + action’. (I may be paraphrasing – it’s a while since I’ve heard him on the subject.) He rather memorably announced that ‘understanding is the booby prize’. I find myself reflecting that the myriad useful details that the London City Singers had retained through a method based on analytical understanding isn’t just a booby prize – it’s actually got lots of good stuff in it. But we still need to find a more effective way of storing the action-based, embodied parts of our work together. On my to-do list!
Two other aspects of the session stood out for me. The first was finding a way to effect a mood change for the verse in the middle of their up-tune. We had established back in February the need for a more conversational, even confidential delivery here– the trick was how to achieve it distinctly and reliably. A dynamic change is in some ways the obvious way to go about this, but as a primary device it risks a loss of projection. We talked about the idea of ‘everything adding to 10’*, so that as you take out volume, you need to add emotional intensity to compensate.
But the real breakthrough was when we switched focus between musical elements. The main strength of the song as a whole is rhythmic, but we spent some time relishing instead the melodic sweep of this section, which starts with an extravagant tumble down in the lead line, balanced by an upward swell at the end of the phrase. The key thing, though, was taking time to enjoy the melodic character of all the lines, not just the leads. The main tune is the customer-facing part of the music of course, but if you’re being melodic, then everyone needs to be melodic with whatever their part is doing. And there’s a lot more melody in the harmony parts than you’d sometimes think.
This switch of focus gave a clear sense of mood change without having to muck about with tempo or delivery or anything. Indeed, a listener might be hard pressed to say what the singers were doing differently, but they’d understand instantly that they’d entered a contrasting expressive register.
The other moment that stood out to me was a follow-up on our work from last time on finishing notes artistically. But it was specifically with the tune-up chord for their ballad. They had been singing this as if its purpose was to secure the notes and tuning for the start of the song (which of course it is). But we worked on singing it so that it also secured their stage personas as compelling performers. On one hand, this is for the benefit of the audience – capturing their attention, and giving them a buzz of anticipation that something good is about to happen. But it’s also for the singers themselves. If your subconscious hears a chord that has presence and direction and purpose at the start of the song, it will assume you are an amazing performer and induce you to produce a performance that lives up to that self-image.
Most of us have several different potential performance identities available to us. There’s the slightly tired and on autopilot mode; there’s the my head is still in the office mode; and there’s the mega-star who sells a song so it touches your heart mode. If you sing your tune-up in one of these, it’s awfully hard to switch to another for the main song. And it’s quite amazing the difference it makes when you pick the right one for the tune-up.
*hat tip to Rod Sgrignoli for this idea which I stole from him at the Holland Harmony convention at the weekend.