Monday night saw me back on my old home patch in Colchester, coaching the chorus that gave me my first induction into barbershop, Colne Harmony - recently rebranded as Chorus Iceni. They now rehearse in a hall a scant five minutes' walk away from where I lived in my last year in the town, so it felt like a return home in more ways than one.
In other ways, of course, it's a very different chorus from the one I left in 1999. As well as the new name, there are lots of new faces on the risers, bringing the chorus up to possibly the largest size it has ever been. There is also a new directing team in place since last autumn. Iam James and Nickie Williams are both experienced performers and coaches, though new to directing, so my task was to help them work on their technique at the same time as we worked with the chorus
A theme that emerged several times was exploring ways to help the singers connect their delivery of musical content with the songs' emotional narratives. The decisions about pacing and shaping generally made sense, and discussion showed a clear and shared understanding of the songs' characters and scenarios, but the two needed hooking together more integrally.
In Jim Clancy's classic arrangement of 'If I Give My heart to You', this process took two forms. Working back from the very end, we identified a transition from poignancy to hope through a progression of three chords just before the tag. The lyrics at the end tell us that the character has made the decision to trust, but it's the harmonies that show us the sense of relief they experience as they make that decision.
The other way we connected the delivery and narrative in this ballad was in using vocal qualities associated with the lyrics to effect dynamic change. Both the music and the lyrics of the bridge call for a contrast between laughing and crying, which the chorus were bringing out as a dynamic contrast. We spent a little while exploring the vocal quality Estill method people call 'cry', with its laryngeal tilt and expressive colour, and how this transforms the volume change from, well, a volume change into a moment on an emotional journey.
We also worked on Joni Bescos's arrangement of 'Sweet Georgia Brown', where one of the challenges was making sense of the sudden tempo shift between first and second choruses. Again, this was being executed with a reasonable degree of control, but it wouldn't necessarily be apparent to a listener why this was happening; it felt obedient to the music rather than necessary to the narrative.
The process here was like the actor asking, 'What's my motivation?' to figure out what has happened to make them sing this content in this way. This is a useful question to enliven any detail of a performance, but it is particularly helpful when you have a sudden state change. It makes you articulate not just what the shift in emotional flavour is, but the event that precipitates that shift.
Sometimes the event is internal (a decision, a realisation), and sometimes it is external - another character in the narrative acting upon the persona of the song. But identifying both the event and the exact moment it happens does several things. First, it imbues the musical change with meaning - you're not just singing it that way because you decided to, you're singing it that way because it needs to go like that. Second, it hooks your memory of what to do when into your Communicator rather than your Manager.
Third, it forces you to keep looking afresh at the music. It's easy to think you know a piece once you've got the notes and the words, but asking about your motivation keeps pushing you back into the detail to work out what's going on and why. And each time you look, you find stuff that you never noticed before. Who put all that there? Why wasn't this music as interesting as this last time I looked?