More Artistry in Amersham
Tuesday last week took me down to Amersham to work with current LABBS chorus champions, Amersham A Cappella on the wonderful ballad that helped secure their gold medal back in October. For, they may already triumphed with it, but there was still more music to hidden within in, and my task was to help them bring it out.
The song is a 1950s adaptation of Chopin’s Etude in E major, which added words to the outer, melodic sections to turn it into a love song. The challenge for a pianist is how to string these relatively slow-moving notes together into a continuous line, given that every note on a piano dies as soon as it is struck.
Singers obviously have the advantage of being able to produce a genuine continuity of sound, but they still need to generate flow and flexibility out a line of even crotchets, and there is a lot to be learned from listening to how pianists handle this. So, I had sent some listening homework to the chorus in advance – three pianists’ performances, Jo Stafford’s classic recording of the ballad, and the Ambassadors of Harmony’s performance from the 2012 BHS International Convention – along with some commentary of what to listen out for.
I am very grateful to my past self for having the forethought to do this, as drawing on this shared experience of listening and reflection allowed us to find a space to work in melodically that was both analytical and intuitive. We could work out the nuances of what the music needed, but also connect it with felt musical meaning. The changes we were making were very subtle, but made a significant difference to the feel of the song. I arrived knowing what we needed to do, not entirely certain of exactly how we were going to do it, but with what turned out to be an accurate hunch that once we had found our way in, progress would accelerate quite quickly.
At a technical level, there were three aspects to developing melodic flexibility. The first was varying the weight of what are written as even crotchets so as to concatenate them into gestures and lines rather than notes. Amersham have a wonderful vocal legato, but that was sometimes keeping unaccented syllables in the lyric too much at the surface. We explored ways to lift these syllables without breaking the line to bring out the poetic metre.
This also involved minute adjustments to their durations – what pianists would think of as agogic as well as dynamic accents. But you couldn’t have achieved the shaping we did by focusing solely on that dimension, as the increments were too fine for deliberate manipulation. This was where the dialogue between analytical and holistic thinking was particularly productive.
The second area was compensating rubato, the idea that the amount you push forward and pull back should overall add up to the same amount of time gained or lost. Performance studies in musicology have shown that people never actually do this literally, but it remains a useful way to think about tempo flexibility. You need to earn your right to dally at the end of the phrase by hustling into it in the first half.
This works in tandem with form and the emotional shape of the song. In the early phrases, it needs only a light touch, but as the urgency of the narrative builds, it calls for greater magnitudes of rubato.
The third area was in fully exploiting the aforementioned capacity of the voice to develop a note. Here, my subconscious had done some useful groundwork by delivering a new coaching metaphor in a dream the previous Saturday. My dream self had said, ‘Singing long notes is like kissing; you only really know what it means as you finish’, so I quoted that verbatim.
I really like this metaphor, thank you brain. I like it for the way it keeps your attention right through the long note. You don’t want to start wondering if you left the iron on when you’re in the middle of a snog. It also makes the way you complete the note important. The way your lips part communicates so much about the way your hearts are still together. And I like thinking about kissing, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to do that a lot while I’m working on musical things.
As we finished for the evening, one of the singers told me she had enjoyed it because it felt like we were really working together organically, and thus that the achievements were theirs, rather than a coach putting a stamp on them. This made me extraordinarily happy, because it is how I would aspire to work with singers. It is most reassuring to get feedback that tells you you’re working consistently with what you believe in.