Love & Rhythm
The New Year’s coaching season launched off at the weekend with a visit to Heartbeat chorus in Cheshire, under their new director Nancy Kelsall. The goal was to kick off their preparation for the Sweet Adelines Region 31 convention in May after all the distractions of seasonal performances before Christmas. As current bronze medallists, they are approaching this with a distinct sense of purpose.
Over dinner on Saturday night, Nancy’s husband Simon remarked on a helpful comment one of his rowing* coaches used to make: that usually the moment at which you notice the problem isn’t the moment that’s causing it. So, rather than dealing directly with the issue you notice, you should analyse what has happened immediately beforehand to set it up. This applies really well to singing too: if a note is slightly flat, it’s probably the two before that lacked support; if a phrase has a ragged start, it’s probably from uncoordinated breathing.
Something I noticed during Sunday’s coaching, though, was that the converse of this is also true. If you sort out the set-up to a musical gesture, the actual delivery of the gesture looks after itself. For instance, their ballad has a verse that comes in two halves. The first is musically static and emotionally angst-ridden; the second transforms into hope with an arching melody. We spent some considerable time exploring the musical and expressive world of the first half, leading to the breath point at which the fortunes change. Then, the first time after this that the chorus sang through into the second half of the verse, they just did all the expressive work for themselves: it was soaring, ecstatic, glorious.
Likewise, we gave considerable focus to the moment just before the key change, which is the moment of most intimate expression in the song, before blossoming out into a new world. It was finding the right level of warmth and tenderness in the set-up that gave room for the transformation to occur.
A less global, but also useful area of work was on how to perform breath-points that come half-way through an idea. On my last visit a year ago, we’d explored the way that breath-points are the places where the next idea springs from. But sometimes of course an idea continues for longer than you’d sing in one breath. The trick is here to keep the thought going across both phrases: your lungs breathe, but your musical attention stays in the phrase.
Two specific physical things help with this. Firstly for the director’s hands to articulate the breath within the general shape of the whole idea – the further their hands move for the breath the more the breath will interrupt the flow of the thought. Secondly, the singers need to maintain their frame of support for the voice across the phrase break. It is a standard part of the barbershop performance tradition/vocal craft to refresh the stance at breath points, a move that sheds any incipient bodily tension and resets the support. But if you do this at breath points that come within an idea as well as places where new ideas occur, the audience can lose the thread of the narrative. It is a technique that is most effective when used to articulate the conceptual structure of the music, rather than as a habit every time you breathe.
There are three reasons why I write up coaching sessions on this blog: to help me reflect on what is proving effective, as a follow-up for the people I’ve been working with, and as a resource for anyone else who’s interested in these kinds of activities. This time we had two composition students from the RNCM observing and taking notes as part of their research for an essay; I can’t help wondering as I write this how much overlap my write-up will have with theirs!
*That’s ‘rowing’ as in the sport, pronounced to rhyme with ‘sewing’. I don’t think Simon has ever had specific training in pointless shouty arguments.