Expanding In Spires

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Toes to the front on the new risers!Toes to the front on the new risers!Wednesday evening took me back to Oxfordshire to have an evening’s coaching with a much expanded Harmony InSpires. Since I first visited them in 2008, they have increased in size by a good 50%, and have had to move to a new rehearsal venue to make room for everyone. Expanding membership is one of those things that people often think they need to do in order to become more successful, whereas in fact it is a result of things going well. People are attracted to participate where they can sense a buzz.

Two things that are helping keep this buzz going in Harmony InSpires are their recent success at the Oxford Festival, where they won two choir classes, and their receipt of mentoring from current LABBS champions, Amersham A Cappella. And it’s interesting to note, as a coach, how the confidence that these experiences engender make it easier for people to make the change to their technique you suggest. But the real clue that something is going right there is that the tonal centre stayed true all evening.

We worked a lot on connecting things together, both at the level of the phrase and syllable-to-syllable. We explored how singing in longer spans of phrases gives more musical momentum, and thus helps maintain the breath support for longer when you get to the points that really demand it.

The technique we used to glue small phrases together into longer ones was to give a ‘spin’ to the last note of the first one to propel it into the next. If you simply ask people not to breathe, they will have done so by reflex action before their conscious attention has time to intervene, but with a positive effect to replace the unnecessary breath, they get something to focus on – and an immediate artistic reward for doing so. And it’s always easier to replace a habit than to remove one.

We also worked on connecting the voice up in a song that has lots of unvoiced short consonants in its lyrics. These were stopping the voice too soon and introducing lots of little bits of white space between notes. A useful image to rebalance the relationship between the airflow and its articulation is snicking the flow from a running tap with a knife. (As opposed to putting a spoon under it and spraying water all over your front.)

To set up the full legato airflow (equivalent of the water stream), we first ‘bubbled’ the line. We then sang it to na-na-na-na-na, which gave something to articulate the rhythm of the lyric whilst giving nothing to interrupt the voice.

This latter exercise spawned to refinements. First time out, the n’s were rather over-emphasised – deprived of the short consonants to interrupt the voice, the singers’ habitual responses were trying to use the n’s instead: Na-Na-Na. So we reversed the size of the letters – just the tiniest flick of the tongue is needed to give: nA-nA-nA-nA.

Then we found these moments (especially towards the back end of longer notes) where the airflow was dropping and the voice therefore losing support. So we consciously removed all typographical gaps: nAAnAnAAAnAAnAA. You don’t get to use a space bar when you sing!

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