Re-visiting Fascinating Rhythm

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fascrhysep11Saturday took me back to Bristol to work once again with my friends in Fascinating Rhythm. They are in the final lap of their preparation for LABBS Convention next month, and sounding considerably more solid and confident in their songs than back in May.

The challenge for a coaching session at this stage of the performance preparation process is how to make changes that are significant enough to be major enhancements without disrupting the security developed in the rehearsals so far. In terms of Kotter’s model of change, you need to unfreeze to transform, but you don’t want to unfreeze too much at this stage, when most of the rehearsal focus is on re-freezing – i.e. locking in the skills and performance decisions so they can be delivered consistently at will.

Three main themes emerged as a result. The first was of polishing. This is a metaphor we use all the time, but without always noticing that it is a metaphor. It is essentially the process of removing surface distractions, and it can seem, at times, boringly technical. But its purpose is to allow people to view the beauty of the music beneath. If we look at a piece of glassware, we just want to admire its shape and gleam, but if there’s a fingermark on it, that’s the first thing that draws our attention.

The second was of highlighting. The performances were well-conceived in their shape, but there were opportunities still available to bring out moments to add colour and sparkle to make the whole more vivid, more three-dimensional. These changes were often a matter of bringing changes in vocal colour that were already implicit in the delivery into greater focus, either by making contrasts more explicit or by bringing out the gestures immediately before that heralded the change. It was telling how much easier it became for the singers to establish a new mood when they had signposted it in advance for the audience.

The third was of re-connecting with the emotional narrative. When you rehearse something in detail, you can get so used to its shape that you start to take it for granted (aka semantic depletion). It was particularly noticeable at breath points, so we worked a lot on evoking specific, concrete imagery that heralded the next thought to be expressed. This had benefits both for the singers, as it helped keep them emotionally engaged with the song, and for the listeners, as it invested each breath point with meaning and forward motion.

A particular challenge was the start of the first song. They have put a lot of detailed work into it, yet the technical control they have achieved as a result was starting to get undermined by a degree of tension. Because they knew they should be able to do it well, they were putting themselves under pressure, and thus marginally but perceptibly under-performing it each time. If you are a human being, you know the kind of cycle you can work yourself into here.

We broke the cycle by the following method. Everybody bent their knees and bent over, letting their arms and heads dangle, and their backs widen. We then had their director, Jo, give them a verbal cue, ‘breathe,’ at which they all came back to upright and she brought them in to sing as they arrived. The sound was immediately vivid, alive, free, resonant.

Of course, this isn’t going to be a strategy they could use on stage, but even as a rehearsal method it is going to have value, as it will give them the chance to get their aural memories ringing with how they sound in that mode – it can shift what they expect of themselves.

But we also explored a variety of strategies that capture elements of that exercise that could be transferred to the stage. These included gestures Jo can use to trigger the outflow of breath and widening of the back, and ways to start the song. The key element, we discovered, was to feel the onset of sound as joining in with something already in motion, not as a standing start. It took a good deal of trust between director and chorus to explore some of them, so I am going to let them keep the details to themselves until they’ve had a chance to play with them a bit more and figure out which ones they’re going to make their own.

But it was a fascinating practical investigation into the relationship between technique and psychology, and between director action and chorus sound, and we all emerged with a real sense of excitement at the possibilities.

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