On Wednesday evening I had another visit to coach my friends at Harmony InSpires, near Oxford. I last heard them back in November 2008, when they had recently acquired a lot of new members, and it was good to see that lots of those new members were still there, and more new ones arriving on a regular basis. Whether you have a net inflow or outflow of singers is always a good indication as to the health of a chorus!
We spent much of the evening thinking about the breath, and the way it is the key to delivering musical flow.
You can approach phrasing from so many different perspectives - text (connection, weight of different syllables), melody (long-range shape), rhythm (placement and frequency of accents) – but all of these musical concerns rely on a ready and constant supply of air to the vocal mechanism to join the individual notes up into lines.
The were three primary strategies we used for this. The first was simply the inclusion of exercises in the warm-up that consciously engaged what Edward Caswell refers to as the ‘belly dancing muscles’. There are all sorts of variations of this theme available, but you know when they’re working because the singers start holding their sides and pulling faces that say, ‘cor, that was more strenuous than usual’.
Second, we did lots of ‘bubbling’, i.e. singing to ‘brrrrrrrr’ (as in the sound you make to indicate you’re chilly, not a tongue-rolled r). The trick here is to develop a continuous ‘rrrrrrrrrrrrrr’ rather than an articulated ‘brrbrrbrrbrrr’. If there are stops and starts and bumps in the sound, this tells us that the airflow is being interrupted, whereas a completely smooth ‘rrrrrrrrrrr’ tells us that it is flowing smoothly. The lips here model the vocal folds; bubbling externalises a process that normally goes on inside our bodies so that we develop a more conscious awareness of how our breath is working.
What we found was that, as the singers became more accomplished at keeping their sound continuous, people who had struggled to bubble without holding the corners of the mouth with their fingers started to find their lips vibrating more freely and could let go of their faces.
Third, we spoke the texts of the songs to a stage whisper, endeavouring to make the whispered sounds as high as possible. Like bubbling, this requires a strong engagement of the vocal support – indeed, it is much more greedy of breath than either bubbling or singing!
The second two strategies were also very helpful for keeping the voice up in the head register. It’s all too easy in the bottom part of your range to slip back into a chesty rumble that feels excitingly resonant, but doesn’t carry more than a couple of feet beyond your body. Bringing clarity and brightness to the sound not only makes it easier to blend – since everyone can hear each other better – but allows it to carry much more effectively to an audience. Call me old-fashioned, but I rather like it when our listeners can make out what they music is about ;-)
And what was interesting as the evening progressed was the way that as the chorus developed their continuity of breath, lots of other things sorted themselves out too. We heard better tuning, and a more uniform vocal colour across the different parts. There was more resonance and ring to the sound, and the chorus themselves appeared to perform with a greater sense of authority. They were knackered by the end of the evening, of course – continuity of breath takes a remarkable degree of stamina compared even a slightly intermittent airflow – but I think they were also quite impressed with themselves as well. They deserved to be.