Workshopping with the West Midlands Police Choir
I spent Saturday morning with the West Midlands Police Choir in central Birmingham, doing a half-day bespoke workshop on the theme of Developing the Ensemble. I have to say that, whilst my recent adventures have been most exciting, it was lovely to be working on my home patch for a change. It is quite a novelty to lead an event like this and still be home in time for lunch.
Within the major theme of how you turn a group of individuals, each with their own heart, brain and voice into a single performing unit, we had two main areas of focus: finding common approaches to using the voice, and opening up the ears and sense of mutual awareness between the singers.
An interesting question came up a couple of times on the relationship between vocal technique and the rhythmic style of the music. We were doing a lot of work on joined-up singing: getting both a consistent placement of the vowels so they all sat in line with the melody, and linking word sounds together to make a single line, rather than a chopped-up series of notes.
An immediate result of this is often to change the feel of the music. In smoothing out the vocal delivery, you can lose rhythmic drive as well as gain resonance and unity of sound. And of course, not all music wants a smooth feel at the expressive level. The trick then becomes to re-energise the rhythmic content once the lines are joined together.
The metaphor that emerged to manage this was seasonally appropriate to the Christmas repertoire we were looking at: Delia Smith’s method for icing Christmas cakes. This involves covering the cake with icing, and then whipping up the top into snow-like peaks. Hence you have both the continuity of icing and the surface interest. If you sing aiming for just the rhythmic pulses without the continuity of voice underneath, this is more like putting lots of separate blobs of icing on the cake.
We also did some work on the relationship between director and choir, in particular in how to shift from that condition early on in new repertoire where the director is having to help the choir with everything to a state where they are more in control of the music, freeing the director up to manage the flow and deal with more nuanced details rather than having to keep driving everything at once.
The exercise we used for this was to make the choir ‘operate’ the director, rather than vice versa. We took a piece in which there were clear dynamic contrasts, and asked the singers to take control of this aspect of the music. Their conductor, Matt Lever, would then respond to their dynamic levels, reflecting the sounds they produced, rather than initiating them.
The experiment revealed all kinds of useful things. First, it showed that the singers could enact a dynamic plan without having to have it spoon-fed to them – here was an aspect of the music for which they could safely take responsibility. At the same time, though, there were different opinions about how they felt doing it: some found it liberating, others found it quite uncomfortable. But even within these responses, there was a general recognition that the choir had operated more cohesively as a result. When the ball was placed in the singers’ court to make musical events happen autonomously, they listened to each other more and worked more as a team. And because they all had to be proactive, they performed more together.
It’s not a method you’d want to use in the normal run of things (as I hastened to reassure those who had found it uncomfortable), but it’s a really useful learning experience nonetheless. We typically think of a choir as needing to ‘follow’ their director, but these singers demonstrated how you can feel more confident as part of the team if everyone participates in leading the music.