Brunel Harmony and the Integrated Song
I spent Saturday working with Brunel Harmony on the contest package they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in October. They had got to the point where things were generally in place - music and choreography largely embedded, and the overall concept and intentions clear - so what it needed next was a combination of polishing of execution and bringing out the details.
What we found ourselves doing to achieve this, though, was integrating technical control of the various performance elements with a sense of characterisation and narrative. It was a classic example of how you can start with any one item of technique, and find that as you explore it, it turns out to be connected with all kinds of other areas, both technical and expressive.
In this case, we started with breath. All songs make demands on breath, of course, but the demands were conspicuous in the first of Brunel’s through featured long notes in the melodic structure, and - in some places - some reasonably long phrases. And it was clear at the start of the day that some singers were responding to these features by sneaking in extra breaths at various points.
We dealt with this at a technical level with bubbling. The great thing about this is not only that it makes you dig deeper for breath and adds resonance to the sound, but it also reveals very clearly where there are bumps and gaps in the sound. And if you do a lot of it, it really builds stamina. Anyone can bubble for 8 bars, but if you struggle to get through the whole song, that tells you your support mechanism needs more exercise if you are to sing the end as effectively as you wish.
But at an artistic level, we also explored why these extra breaths are a problem. It’s partly to do with interrupting the continuity of sound, which is the medium for continuity of emotion generated in the audience. It’s partly about meaning - if you approach them as thought-points rather than breath-points, then people breathing in different places are giving mixed messages to the listeners.
It’s also about commitment and characterisation. If you give yourself permission to add in extra breaths as you feel you need them, then you never really fully commit to the song and its expression, whereas if you determine only to breathe in the agreed places for the meaning, you develop a more purposeful and convincing relationship with both the song and with yourself as a singer. If you never risk getting to the end of the phrase on empty, you never need to engage your breathing mechanism to its full capacity, and you thus never access the fully depth of resonance available to you.
Characterisation also interacts with breath. There are always multiple valid ways of inferring the song’s persona from musical shape and lyrical content, but different characterisations produce different kinds of body language, which in turn affect the physical set-up of the voice and consequently its expressive possibilities.
In both songs there were moments where the lyrics beseeched the song’s interlocutor. But if you do this as a persona with an external locus of control - conferring the power to grant or deny your request on that interlocutor - you find yourself with a body language that pulls the shoulders in and forward, undermining your vocal support. If your character operates with self-belief, and makes the request as asking for what they know is their due, your body becomes taller and more open in demeanour, and the sound therefore richer and brighter. Integrity of intention generates integrity of sound.
Characterisation then became the main focus of our work on their second song, building a set of vivid mental images for the different stages in a medley to create an arc of form that had both variety and a coherent trajectory. Using imagery frees the performers up to use their own imaginations, rather than following detailed lists of technical instructions, and produces much more reliable retention of our progress. People remember memorable things better than to-do lists, especially when the things that make them memorable have been generated by their own brains.
Two of the singers made really interesting comments at the end about the effect of our work on their experience of breathing. The first was that the characterisation had made the breathing easier, because in her head it wasn’t her doing the singing, but a character who was much better at it than she herself was. The second was that focusing on the meaning of breaths and the phrases that followed them meant she stopped feeling anxious about getting enough air, and as a result had less physical tension and breathed more freely. Between them I think they really captured some central insights about the integration of technique and artistry, of singer and song.