Carfield Community Charisma

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carfieldjun11I spent Monday evening in Sheffield working with Carfield Community Choir on their performance skills. Last time I saw them we were working on ways to develop a sense of ensemble, and they have definitely developed a much greater sense of cohesiveness since then. They are now at the stage where they are ready to move on from a definition of success that is about not making mistakes to one that is more artistically ambitious, and it was a great pleasure to help them explore this new and exciting territory.

We started off by exploring musical characterisation. This developed in a variety of different dimensions. We looked at the difference between instrumental and narrative roles in a cappella music, and how the former is about creating a sound-world with colour and articulation while the latter is about delivery of melody and lyrics. We looked at how phrases can be shaped either by paying attention to melodic contour or by focusing on lyrical meaning. (And we didn’t discuss, but did demonstrate, that these approaches are fundamentally compatible.)

We talked about mood and meaning, and how the words tell you what is going on, while the music tells you what to feel about it. We talked about time and place and how both can be evoked not just by an unfolding melody, but by the way you take your breath to create the opening sounds.

Later on we moved onto more practical dimensions of performance craft. This isn’t the kind of choir that wears matching eyeshadow, and it started out as a group of people whose interest was in singing together rather than singing to other people. Nonetheless, they find themselves with a clear and valued role in singing for community occasions, and it was clear that some sense of method was going to be helpful for their confidence. (Incidentally, I like their definition of an appropriate performance occasion: an event within walking distance at which there is cake. There is something very right about this choir’s ethos.)

So, we looked at a number of simple actions that are easy to do whatever you may be feeling inside, and which give an audience a sense of, ‘Oh this is nice, they’re going to sing to me.’ You see, the point of performance skills in this context is to do things that aren’t about showing off or being ostentatiously visual, but are just about erasing distractions so that the audience feels good about it all without really analysing why.

So, we covered a few basic guidelines:

  • Legs open, mouth open [hat-tip to Sandra Lea-Riley for that one]
  • Let your hands hang by your sides
  • Eyes on the director (when she’s directing), or on an agreed focal point. The idea isn’t to make you all stare like zombies, but just to give you somewhere to look rather than gazing round distracting yourself and making the choir as a whole look cross-eyed
  • When you walk on, find your place by looking at other singers’ faces rather than checking your own feet

The usefulness of these tips comes from three things. First, they are do-able. They’re not over-complex, and so you can remember them in distracting situations like performances. Second, they help the ensemble look coherent and competent so the audience settles down and looks forward to being to sung to without a second thought (and the pleasure of being sung to is what it’s all about after all). Third, it gives the singer a sense of control.

Having a clear set of simple instructions to follow in the knowledge that they will work is very reassuring. It can be easy, if you’ve not done very many performances, to feel rather like a fish out of water when moved from your safe rehearsal space to somewhere you’ve never sung before. But having a set of procedures to apply in such situations helps reconnect you with your practices, and helps you trust your preparation.

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