I was back in Amersham this week working with Amersham A Cappella in anticipation of their participation in the BBC Choir of the Year later this month. Their director Helen Lappert is brilliant at defining an agenda for the evening, and our goals were to:
- Fine-tune performances for Choir of the Year
- Increase the magic
- Enhance individuals’ performances
- Increase projection beyond the footlights
What I liked about this list was the way it had both a coherent theme appropriate to the point in the rehearsal cycle, and defined specific elements of a performance that the theme entails. The goals are thus all inter-related, but analytically separable. You’d be pushed to say how cause and effect works between them (which comes first, the increased individual involvement or upping the magic level?), but working on any one gives you a way in to develop the others.
We spent a good while working on David Wright’s arrangement of ‘One Alone’. This is the third time I have worked with them on this wonderful piece, and I learn more about it every time. We were thinking this time about the use of the breaths to conceive what happens next. In conversation, you start to hatch an idea before you articulate it, then you start to speak and come to a natural resting place (aka the full-stop) when the idea is complete. The corrollary for singing is that you need to have in your head the primary idea of the phrase to come as you draw breath to sing it.
There is an amazing difference in performing believability between a breath that’s only taken to fuel the voice and a breath that anticipates the meaning of what is to follow. As the singers discovered, it changes your relationship with the unfolding song, as it forces you to be always thinking ahead rather than singing along with your memory of how the song goes.
What this process uncovered about this song is how long many of the ideas are, and how the most vivid words are not necessarily the most important for the sense. For instance, the verse includes the words:
…but I keep on longing
Just to rest a while
Where a lover’s tender eyes
Take the place of sand and skies.
The most obviously expressive words are ‘longing’ and ‘tender’, and the most obviously expressive chord is the bIII7 on ‘eyes’. But in terms of what the song is saying, the central point is ‘take the place’. The protagonist has all these exotic places to roam, but what they desire is to replace them with the presence of their lover.
One of the techniques we developed to identify these key moments was paraphrase: if you can replace or omit a word, it isn’t key to the core idea, no matter how expressive it is (‘…where a darling’s knobbly knees take the place of tropic seas…’). So a lot of the adjectives, evocative and emotionally colourful as they are, turn out to be subsidiary to verbs (or sometimes the objects of verbs).
What was interesting, though, was that, once the chorus had engaged with these thought processes, they didn’t need to change their phrasing at all to make the sense of the lyrics work. Little inflections on interesting adjectives could still add nuance and warmth, but no longer distracted the ear from the longer-range meaning of the song. Rather, by taking conceptually-engaged breaths, they helped the listener inhabit the same imaginative world and stay with them as they followed the thread of the narrative through.