Masterclass with Jim Henry

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Jim Henry in actionJim Henry in action

Another of the many delights at the recent BABS Convention was a masterclass run by Jim Henry on the first afternoon. Dr Jim was at the convention as bass in the 2009 International Champion quartet Crossroads, but of course he is also director of the Ambassadors of Harmony and Director of Choral Studies at the University of Missouri-St Louis. So it was only sensible to get the benefit of his choral expertise while he was there!

He spent an hour or so working with a large chorus made up of the Great Western Chorus of Bristol augmented by a large number of audience members who were invited to participate. He worked on standard elements of choral craft - breath, vowel and placement – with a brief diversion into the world of rhythmic integrity. So, the content was nothing surprising, but what was striking was the degree of improvement he effected in a very short time.

Three things in particular struck me as central to his effectiveness – and they were less to do with what he was doing than how he was doing it.

  1. The delivery of the session was very pacey, especially in first half of the hour. There was absolutely no white space in the alternation of instruction and execution. And the alternation itself was rapid-fire. He kept the singers doing a task just long enough to ascertain whether they were achieving the goal, and then either added an instruction to tweak what they were doing if need be, or moved onto the next thing as soon as they had nailed it. And if they started to lose something they’d work on, he’d pick up and refresh it immediately. This pace required the singers to engage continuously throughout, and you could hear the resulting cumulative improvement very clearly.
  2. He was constantly appealing to the singers’ aspirations for excellence. His compliments challenged them, and his challenges complimented them. He established the corporate identity of the group as expert in their craft, and used that expectation as the rationale for everything he asked them to do.
  3. He was very kinaesthetic in his approach, routinely requiring the singers to use gesture or movement to model the musical and vocal concepts he was working on. This had the effect not only of underpinning the learning (as is well documented in the choral education literature), but also functioned as a disciplinary tool to ensure continuity of engagement from all singers. You can’t inconspicuously drift off in this style of instruction; as non-participation is immediately visible both to director and the other singers.

It is the nature of a session with these qualities that you can be scribbling constantly throughout and still feel that your notes have only captured a fraction of what went on. Still, here are some of the points that made it legibly into my notebook:

  • 75% of the problems in singing start before you sing
  • Breathe through the hinges of your jaw
  • Approach all notes from above – like stepping on stairs – whether the line is going up or down
  • ’Feels unnatural doesn’t it? Tell you want’s really unnatural: being best at something.’
  • You sing sounds, not words; it’s Singlish not English
  • ’You can’t just go on mindlessly spouting notes and words.’
  • Head voice quality is critical to all singing
  • Think of the voice coming from between the ears rather than from the throat; ‘Where most people have brains, singers have vocal folds.’
  • Flatness is usually not about the ears, it’s about placement.
  • The sound should come up and round the back of the head, not just straight out your mouth.
  • Tenors tend to just harmonise along; they need to be less passive, take charge more.

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