Monday evening took me back to Essex for a repeat visit to Chorus Iceni in Colchester. I last saw them at the end of April, which is a long enough interval for them to have done a good deal of consolidation, yet short enough for me to have a clear memory of the level we were working at then. As a result, it was a delight to be able to tell them that I could really hear the difference they had made during the intervening rehearsals.
Two things in particular had clearly received attention since my last visit. The first was bubbling: not only was there a much greater continuity of airflow now, but everyone got on and undertook it with a sense of purpose. It is now an accepted part of the skill set rather than perceived as a difficult (and thus resisted) task. The second is that there is a noticeably more consistent sense of legato than before; given the benefits of bubbling, this is possibly not a coincidence.
As a result, Monday's efforts could build on my last visit, both in terms of skill development and approach, moving from quite a global approach to the songs into a much more focused, intensive mode. We also found the singers taking a much stronger sense of control, particularly with some of the vocal techniques we worked on, taking skills we'd introduced in one part of the session and starting to apply them elsewhere. It is such behaviours that generate strong and consistent increases in performance level. (The last sentence should be read as encouragement for Chorus Iceni to keep doing that.)
Interestingly, the chorus's new name is providing opportunities to develop this sense of identity as an ensemble that has the power to take control. The notion of feeling important is a device I use as a matter of course to influence singerly posture (it tends to produce less tension and more mental engagement than simply asking people to stand tall), but, influenced by a sight of Boudica on a draft of their new logo, this idea became customised to the image of 'Queens of the Universe'.
This started off as a passing idea, but it was so clearly met with a sense of local meaning, that it became a motif throughout the evening in a variety of contexts. (My favourite of which was the idea that if you investigate the history, you'll see in the town museum that Boudica was known for the perfection of her 'ay' vowels.) We found ourselves moving into that virtuous circle where singers feel a greater sense of control over what they're doing and so engage more actively, which in turn produces more gains, which give them the opportunity to feel good about themselves. There's something that happens to the sound during this process too: a vibrancy that emerges not from technique but from self-belief.
On a more specific level, our work found a nice little refinement of an existing idea to solve the specific problem of Breathing and Musical Time. As a chorus, they have a clear sense of when they intend to breathe, but there are still some involuntary breaths popping in at smaller phrase-boundaries.
Now, I have been helping people integrate their breath points into the musical narrative for some time by re-casting them as 'thought-points' - that is, in using those moments for the song's character to frame the idea of what they will utter next. This has, over time, developed into a more interactional idea: of seeing the face of the person you're singing to in your imagination, and taking their response to what you have just sung as the providing the impetus to continue, the need for the next phrase.
Monday's refinement of this idea was to use the same technique to motivate the connection of phrases. If you sing 'If I give my heart to you...will you handle it with care?', you have the temptation to breathe mid-phrase from both the harmonically settled chord on 'you', and the if-then structure of the lyrics. If you use the length of the note on 'you' to look into the eyes of your potential beloved, to see how he has responded to the first part of your question, and to find whether his response is likely to encourage what you want to ask next, you give a very natural lift and warmth to the sustained part of the note that will carry you through without having to give a thought to breath control.