With a Lighter Heart(beat)
Thursday took me up to Marple to work with my friends in Heartbeat Chorus. It's a couple of years since I've visited, and they have attracted lots of new members in the meantime - a sure sign that something has been going well there.
So the lightness in the title was nothing to do with numbers - quite the opposite! In fact, part of our challenge for the evening was taking a body of sound that big and getting the nimbleness and flexibility that their repertoire was asking for. I don't know why larger bodies of people should, en masse, feel like they need to move more deliberately - probably something to do with the attention required to coordinate with greater numbers. But I guess it is why it is commensurately more exciting when you achieve dexterity with a big group.
So we experienced lightness in several dimensions.
There was lightness in opposition to weight, in a gestural sense, with phrases that wanted a sense of lift prior to a point of arrival. There was taking weight out vocal tone, both for purposes of a seamless handover of melody from one part to another, and to give more scope for playfulness and nuance within a line.
There was also lightness as a visual metaphor: making the voices more transparent to let details of the musical texture through. This is a matter of balance - we started off with a situation where everyone was aware when their own part had the feature of interest, but were not necessarily as aware of other people's moments. But for an audience to get the benefit of the details, the singers need to direct their own attention towards them: 'my friends the tenors have the melody for a moment here'.
We talked about how managing balance using our ears rather than by planning where to sing more or less loudly and quietly allows a chorus to adjust the balance in real time for the number of singers they have on each part and the acoustic on that occasion. If you know what to listen out for, and you can hear it clearly, you know that your own volume is appropriately proportionate.
What we found when the singers started applying their attention to the texture with greater awareness, was that the people who had the details of interest were able to do more with them. They were no longer simply singing them out to try and get them to carry, but had much more room to play.
The thing that most stayed with me on the way home was how much effect small changes can make. At the start of the evening, you would have said that the chorus were singing well, and with a sense of commitment to and enjoyment of the music. But really quite subtle changes to weight, tone, shaping or articulation brought an astonishing sense of life and colour to the performance. It was hardly any different, but it was totally different.
And on reflection, I think this says something about that wonderful concept of 'learning readiness'. We were able to make these gains in a short time, because these were the gains the singers needed at that moment.