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Motivating the Moves with the Chordettes

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chordettessep18Sunday took me down to Devon to revisit the Chordettes in the run up to their contest performance at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention next month. In the three months since I last saw them they have embedded many of the things we worked on back in June, especially their bubbling embouchure and bucket-cup-teaspoon breathing, and were ready to move onto coaching more focused on the audience experience in anticipation of bringing their songs to the stage.

We found some common themes in both songs to enhance the story-telling. Using the breath-points as thought-points in which the song’s protagonist decides what to say next is an important feature of the narrative in the delivery of any type of lyric, and always helps integrate the breaths into the musical world of the song. Likewise, it’s important for everyone to think all the words in a narrative, even those they don’t sing, if the audience is to perceive and understand the full story.

This latter point emerged in two different contexts. Where one part has lyrics, accompanied by neutral syllables from the others, the accompanying parts’ attention to the melody brings a natural balance to the texture. Where one or two parts have a pick-up with the others joining in on the down-beat, the later-starting parts need to start mentally along with those who sing the pick-up. Which means in turn that they need to be hatching the thought as those who sing the anacrusis draw breath to start. When they do this, the pick-up carries through to the audience; when they don’t, it gets lost.

This is a particular instance of the fact that whatever your attention is on is what the audience will hear. If you are ignoring the singers who start the phrase, you make it harder for your listeners to notice them. If you participate mentally in the whole story, it all becomes much clearer; your silences become helpful to the narrative.

The concept of the thought-point is adapted from gesture-theorist David McNeill’s notion of the 'growth-point’ – the moment where a thought originates and, if allowed to develop, flows out into simultaneous verbal and gestural expression. This concept came in useful in greater detail as we explored how to turn their choreography from simply being ‘moves’ into tools for their story-telling.

In the first instance, we needed to walk through the basic principles of how gesture and speech work together. The verbal elements of meaning come out sequentially as words, while the accompanying gesture captures the concept as a whole, and will be timed either to arrive at the same moment as the key word in the sentence, or will arrive a bit ahead that word and be held until its arrival.

You don’t need to know about this when you’re speaking because you just do it naturally, but it is useful to understand this framework when you are recreating the illusion of spontaneity in performance. Each gesture has a preparation, a ‘stroke’ (the moment of arrival/articulation), and a retraction, and the choreographic placement of the main stroke therefore functions to identify the central moment in a phrase.

This framework thus integrates choreographic gesture into the concept of the whole sentence instead of being an isolated moment en route. The expressive content isn’t just about a particular word, it’s about how that word is key to the idea as a whole.

Once people start to get the feel for this dynamic, they start to have more fun with their moves. Their eyes light up to animate the gestures and make them meaningful, and the timing improves as people start to make the gesture more purposeful. Essentially, when people start thinking about gestures as a carrying the whole idea, they stop being surprised by what comes next because they have taken control of the whole thought at the start of the sentence.

At this stage, it becomes very visually obvious which moves are getting creatively invested with meaning, and which are tending to be left empty, performed obediently rather than expressively. We then went back to the latter few and worked out what they were doing in the narrative, why our protagonist would use that particular gesture at that moment in that sentence. With the motivation clarified, the moves sprang into life.

The other major theme for our work on the moves was to check that they were all voice-friendly, and in particular that they kept the lower body engaged and the centre of gravity stable. Often this meant using the legs to lower the height rather than bending from the waist, and getting the feet right under any side-to-side motion. Motions that extended the body in one direction needed something to counterbalance to keep the voice true.

There was one move in particular that the lyric really demanded a bend from the waist, so we spent some time exploring how to achieve this without disconnecting lower from upper body. The trick is to send the hips backwards and bend the knees so that the weight stays above the feet. As with any move, you can test whether you are executing it in a voice-friendly manner by singing a sustained note as you do it and hearing the effect.

I was delighted after doing some of this work to be told by a chorus-member, who turns out to be an Alexander Technique teacher, that what we’d been doing was very Alexander Technique-friendly. It is quite a few years since I have taken AT lessons, but so much of what I do with both conductors and singers has been informed and shaped by that experience, that it is reassuring to know that I am remaining true to that discipline. And it is always useful to discover people who have useful skills to help a chorus continue to develop something we’ve worked on after I’ve gone.

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