Discoveries with Silver Lining
Saturday took me over to Coventry to work with Silver Lining chorus. I have visited them a number of times over the years, though not for a while, and they have developed considerably since my last visit - both in size and assurance. Their director, Sara Jackson, had sent me a to-do list of things it might be useful to work on, with the proviso that if I identified something I felt was more important or urgent, that could queue-jump.
The way this played out in practice was that I went in with some specific plans for coaching tactics right from the get-go, and was then able to diagnose and start to address other coaching needs from within those activities. It felt like an efficient way of working.
One of the first areas we looked at was the introduction to a song that had a habit of sinking in pitch. The chorus had worked on this and appeared to fix it on more than one occasion, but found the problem recurring on a run-through. (I can hear the sound of sympathetic nodding from across the world as you read that.) The problem in this scenario is not that they don’t have the musicianship to maintain pitch (as the repeated, if temporary, fixes show), but simply that they experienced the pitch loss early in the learning process, and have practised it that way.
The strategy we used to work on this was to detach the music from the muscle memory. Mostly people sing along by feel with their memories, so you need to disrupt that pathway of habit and make them forge new ones by listening. We did this by rehearsing the passage in different keys, working progressively higher and lower from the written key.
I have used this technique before; sometimes it is a single-shot bullet that fixes things for all time, but other times it needs repeated experience to generate the new relationship with pitch (probably depending on how embedded the pattern is already). A new discovery this time was the way shifting the key brought out different aspects of technical control that needed attention.
As the key moved progressively higher, it highlighted where vowels needed lining up more accurately. Sounds that matched well-enough mid-voice were exposed as needing closer attention in a higher tessitura. As the key moved progressively down, it brought out placement issues: how where the line dips down in pitch, the sound needs consciously to be kept forward if it is not to disappear.
So changing keys acted as a practice gadget in more ways than the one intended, by exacerbating specific technical demands, it helped the singers gain more specific technical control. It also kept the attention and the voice refreshed. Frankly, I could not have worked on that four bars nearly as long without getting bored had it been in the same key all the time, and it would just have worn a groove in their voices. Keeping it shifting permitted more intensity of work than would otherwise have been possible.
Interestingly, when we finally moved back to the correct key, we heard a mixed result. Some of the details we had worked on in other keys came through beautifully; in other places we could hear the force of habit reassert itself. That itself is a very interesting demonstration of how much habit is connected to key, and I’m actually quite impressed by the level of key sensitivity that shows. So, there’s more work to do there, but I think the chorus are well on the case - not least because they spent the rest of the day connecting the specific details we worked on there with moments throughout the rest of the music we worked on.
Another stand-out learning moment for me was when working on a ballad. There were a just couple of gestures Sara used in directing that I was a little worried about - they seemed tighter than her general style and didn’t have so much flow. But I wasn’t hearing a significant impact on the sound, so didn’t bring them up.
Or at least I didn’t hear any effect on the sound until after we had done some work on resonance. We used bubbling and Sandy Marron’s idea of ‘dome’ to add richness and extra warmth to the sound, and once we had more freedom and resonance to play with, those two gestures were audibly compressing the sound. On the bright side, once there was a clearly audible difference, Sara had the immediate feedback to hear when she had adjusted the gestures to maintain that quality. (I hope she felt rewarded with the results!)
We also discovered a technical term which will be a useful addition to the vocabulary: the ‘dammit!’ chord. This is a chord so placed by the arranger (in this case by a combination of rhythmic emphasis and tight voicing) as to have an expostulatory effect.