Workshopping in Lichfield

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The Lichfield SingersThe Lichfield SingersI had a happy and productive afternoon on Saturday with the Lichfield Singers, doing a workshop on the theme of Rethinking Choral Musicianship. One of the benefits of customising these workshops to individual choirs is that not only do they get the workshop time focused on the music they are currently working on, but the things we learn together are also specific to that occasion. I love that sense of knowledge arising from a particular context, and the feeling that we all go home slightly changed from when we arrived after the experience of working together.

For instance, we spent the first half of the workshop exploring the idea of tonality, of building the awareness of where ‘home’ is. The two pieces we used to develop the theme were Bob Chilcott’s ‘Irish Blessing’ and Mozart’s Ave Verum, and the juxtaposition of the two brought out features of both that we may well not have discovered looking at each separately.

In the Chilcott, we used the exercise of some parts singing their music as written, while other parts intoned theirs to the key note. This brought home the degree of mental focus it takes to sustain a single pitch in the same place – it takes more concentration then you’d think! – as well giving us the chance to hear how the melody pulls away from the key note and resolves back to it. One of the things we noticed was the way the melody reaches a climax point that is not only its furthest reach up from the key note, but also by far the longest note in the piece. So the point of maximum musical energy is also the place where maximum vocal energy is required.

When we moved onto the Mozart, we switched to singing the music as written, but stopping every few bars to sing ‘doh’. I’d picked this piece from their repertoire as a useful progression from the Chilcott because it modulates, so we were moving from a piece that stays in one key throughout to one that moves through several keys within quite a short time-frame.

But singing the two back-to-back brought out several other observations. In the Mozart, the sense of key is not only more mobile, it is also more abstract. In the Chilcott, the key note is audibly present somewhere in the texture nearly all the time – even when the harmony goes through those whole-tone shifts, the melody returns to the tonic. But in the Mozart you can go bars at a time with only a fleeting touch upon the key note.

In a way, this is an obvious thing to say about tonal harmony. Chord V doesn’t contain the tonic, so of course you are going to have chunks of time when it isn’t audibly present. But it puts quite a different set of demands upon people’s ears and imaginations than music that keeps it at the forefront of your mind. This is compounded for some parts (tenor and soprano in particular) as even when the harmony contains the key note, they very rarely actually singing it. So you find you’re having to sustain a more virtual tonal framework in your head to refer back to.

This is what Kodaly referred to as ‘inner hearing’, and it’s one of those dimensions of musicianship that is largely invisible in performance but makes life much more secure in rehearsal. Music theorists use these concepts all the time, but don’t necessarily get the kind of hands-on insight into how they fit into the psychology of practical music-making that you get from the kind of explorations the Lichfield Singers undertook.

The second half of the workshop focused more on rhythm, and a particular success was nailing down a passage from an Abba medley arranged by Mac Huff that had been playing hard-to-get. It’s a tricky passage, with a fast riff in the tenors and basses of ‘take a chance, take a chance, take a take a chance chance’ – a very clever bit of arranging, as the ‘ch’ sound adds a percussive layer to texture, but with multiple challenges in performance.

So, we took it all apart, and dealt with one challenge at a time. We started with everyone on the tenor/bass parts – not only so the upper parts offered some moral support, but also to make sure they had internalised the rhythm so they could coordinate well to it. We also took to speaking rather than singing the lines, and simplified the word sounds to ‘tick-a-tock, tick-a-tock, tick-a- tick-a-tock-tock’, and had everything slightly under tempo. This allowed us to find the inner shape of the riff amongst all the detail, and adding a gesture to articulate it gave some larger-scale structure to frame and thus control all the fiddly stuff.

When that was under control, we could add the notes, and then the real words (or was it the other way round? One at a time, anyway). Still under tempo, we asked the sopranos and altos to add their melodic material over the top, and discovered that now the engine room was really precise they too had to make sure they breathed in good time to keep everything clean. It was also interesting that it was harder to vary the tempo in the melodic parts than in the riff, so we played with taking the whole at a variety of tempi.

We ended the afternoon with a run-through at tempo that had a real sense of confidence and panache.

And this write-up of our extravaganza has ended up much longer than I anticipated, and still leaves out quite a lot of fun stuff. As I said – it was a productive session!

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