Bristol Fashion and the Quest for Freshness

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bristolsep10On Sunday I made another coaching visit to my friends in Bristol Fashion chorus as they start their pre-convention season of contest preparation. They had had the foresight to record their contest package on their rehearsal night last week and send them to me in advance, and it was great to be able to spend some time on the way down formulating ideas for our day’s work from a really up-to-date snapshot of their work.

One of the issues the chorus is grappling with how to get the benefit of deep familiarity with a song whilst keeping their relationship with it fresh. This is a dilemma that all ensembles face in some way or another. You need new repertoire to expand your artistic horizons and stretch you emotionally and technically; but you also need to be able to get beyond the practical issues of getting the notes and words right to be able to develop depth and insight. So the question is how to manage this balance without familiarity collapsing into autopilot.

We addressed this from two dimensions on Sunday: technique and meaning. We spent a lot of the morning taking a magnifying glass into the detail of the song so that the musical focus felt quite different from a usual sing-through. One area of attention was the little words – the syllables that get thrown away in performance because that’s how we’d say them in conversation. But each has its own musical content, and by isolating individual chords and sustaining them until everyone had had the chance to hear how they sounded in their own right, you can start to appreciate the specific musical beauty of sounds that in performance are quite fleeting. An audience member won’t consciously notice each of these chords, but they will feel the emotional impact of having a more continuously beautiful musical experience.

We also did a lot of work on details of synchronisation. Singing sections to a staccato ‘dit’ gives everyone a very clear way of noticing when the chorus is singing together and when they’re not. Bringing everyone’s attention onto it cleaned up a lot of general looseness, helping us to identify where more stubborn moments of synchronisation difficulty were the results either of mismatched breath points or people actually thinking the musical shape slightly differently. I found it very interesting how a session of duetting left the chorus feeling less satisfied with their synchronisation, even though they had succeeded in making significant improvements. This showed that their perception and awareness had improved even more than their execution, and that they now simply cared about it more.

In the afternoon we shifted our focus to meaning. (Not least because after lunch is not the best time for detailed technical work!) We had the chorus work in pairs paraphrasing the lyrics: taking a line at a time, they found ways to say the same thing in different words. We also spent time thinking about the character of the song: where is it set (country? era? time of day/night?)? and who sings it (male or female? role in life? how are they dressed?). When you’ve known music for a while, you tend to take your concept of these things for granted, but you discover when you focus back on the concrete details that your ideas have developed over time.

But the major strategic thing we addressed to refresh the chorus’s relationship with the songs was the role of the run-through. Singing the song all the way through as if in performance has two major roles to play in the rehearsal process. In the earlier stages, it helps memory – giving the chance to build a sense of the song’s overall shape. Then, in the very late stages, it locks down the performance, building consistency to take to the stage.

But at the stage that Bristol Fashion are at right now, they don’t need either of these. They know the songs well enough that memory isn’t a problem, whilst their contest performance is far enough away that they’ve not yet developed all the details they’ll want to lock down to take into performance. Rather, at this stage, running through the songs is holding them back as it helps them practise old habits rather than develop new ones.

This isn’t just an issue for matters of technical control, moreover: it is about the emotional relationship the singers have with the music. Regular run-throughs at a stage when they’re not needed help people get bored with the music.

We had a wide-ranging discussion about all this earlier in the day than I’d planned – it came up as we worked on something else, and was clearly the most important thing to deal with. The idea of not singing through the songs in their entirety for the next month made some people feel a little nervous – and then, as they got used to the idea, the nervousness started to shift to excitement. Getting out of their comfort zone was, after all, what they had been craving.

And, having had this discussion early, I found myself having to be much more disciplined in my coaching. I couldn’t just have the chorus sing on another few bars to give me thinking time. If their singing wasn’t directly addressing a musical or technical goal, it was wasting their time – or even holding them back – and now we’d talked about it they would call me on it if I gave them reason to!

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