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bristolfashion2Saturday saw me back down with my friends in Bristol Fashion for a day’s coaching. Like last year they had provided wonderful weather, and even better, this year they had space outside in which to enjoy it over lunch. Since I last visited they have picked up trophies for most improved chorus and most improved director at LABBS Convention, and are singing with an increased sense of panache for having had their efforts validated.

Interestingly, their director, Craig Kehoe, sees their change in rehearsal venue as an important part of this development. This is partly because a nicer environment has a generally positive effect on the spirits, but more specifically because a cleaner acoustic makes the chorus work harder to produce their sound. They now know that when it sounds resonant, it’s because of their voices rather than the hall!

We spent some time on David Wright’s arrangement of ‘Time After Time’. This is as yet at a relatively early stage of development, though the basic shape of the phrasing and delivery was already well-shaped and – despite the request that I make that a coaching focus – needed relatively little changing. They had clearly committed to a lyric theme in their performance decisions, and the slight changes I suggested were all in support of this fundamental decision.

One idea that proved useful was David Wright’s advice to arrangers not to repeat effects: poignant moments can only have their effect once. It turns out that this is also true of performance decisions. In this ballad, for instance, the phrase ‘so lucky to be loving you’ occurs three times, and they were articulating it each time as ‘so lucky’, by lifting and drawing out the ‘so’. The first time it happened it made a nice effect, but repetition drew attention to the technique rather than adding to the expression. We decided that the last time was the most appropriate for this particular nuance – and then noticed that David’s notation implies a similar conclusion.

Some of Craig’s phrasing decisions were stretching the breath control of the singers. (And I am sure he is the first director to have had that experience, ahem.) This opened up a really interesting conversation about sneaking breaths, and how the most musically obvious places to do this are precisely the places to avoid, because they will be the most audible. We also talked about how, when the lyrical ideas last longer than the melodic units, you get a far more communicative experience from a song when you phrase for meaning rather than tune. This led into a diversion into vocal work on continuity of breath – it’s all very well to say the preferred solution is to practise until you don’t need to sneak any extra breaths at all, but it’s not fair to say that without giving some specific exercises to develop that skill.

The challenge with their contest uptune was the classic question of how to bring repertoire learned at an earlier stage of development up to the current skill level. Choirs who do different repertoire each season don’t have this dilemma, but any group that (a) maintains a performing repertoire and (b) performs from memory faces it constantly. You need memory and habit to keep music performable (and indeed to maintain standards achieved), but you need to break habits in order to grow.

Craig’s strategy for this song was to significantly re-think it, so we experimented with a variety of different tempi and rhythmic flavours in order disrupt ingrained habits and connect with the meaning anew. The singers produced a lot of striking nuances of styling and characterisation in these different feels, tapping into a fund of musicianship far deeper and richer than when they slipped back into their old ingrained tempo. We also played with vocal colour changes to articulate different images in the text. I do like the way that devices designed to make things more entertaining for an audience also make them more entertaining for the singers.

I’ll be back to see them again in September, and really looking forward to it already.

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