Reunion with Phoenix
On Tuesday I spent the evening down in Bedfordshire with Phoenix chorus. I worked with them quite regularly back in 2003-4, and whilst I have had regular contact with several friends from the chorus in the intervening years, this was the first time I had spent time with them as a chorus for probably 6 years. In that time, they have had some significant turn-over of membership, and I have probably changed too – so there was a sense of both picking up where we had left off and starting afresh. It certainly made me notice how my coaching style and techniques have developed over the years – though I still have quite a lot in common with my past self too.
One theme that emerged during the evening was the way that developing your musical insight into the songs makes them easier to sing in quite specifically physical/vocal ways.
For instance, we gave a good deal of attention to refining the swing feel of their contest up-tune: from a quite generalised back-beat to identifing the precise nature of the pulse needed in each of the two tempi it uses. The primary reason for this was to enhance the sense of musical characterisation, but a useful side-effect was the way the backbeat pulse lifted the phrase-ends, taking the effort out of sustaining the voice right until the breath-point.
Likewise, maintaining the sense of pulse as well as the tempo through the first part of the long lead post at the end helped both breath management and the avoidance of vocal strain. Thus when they got to the big barbershop pillar chords where time stops they had the vocal resources to make the gesture as spectacular and thrilling as it was designed to be.
We found similar issues at the start of the song, with its attention-grabbing introduction. Within the context of its brassy and dramatic mode of expression, we teased out details of harmony, voicing and lyrical flow that brought texture and relief to the delivery. (Relief here as in ‘relief map’, rather than the emotional connotation of the word – although the more sculpted delivery might offer that too.) And with the greater contrast came greater vocal freedom.
It’s not just in the big moments that an enhanced musical attention facilitates vocal production. We spent some time duetting their ballad, and found the technique brought not only a greater appreciation of how the parts interacted, but provided more ringing chords and much cleaner synchronisation to boot. And then one of the basses then commented how her notes didn’t feel so low any more.
I also had something of a revelation about the phenomenon of late breathing. It happens all the time: a chorus hears the pitch, the director gives them plenty of warning of when they’re going to start singing, and there’s a fast and shallow gasp of breath at the last moment before they start. I usually deal with this by telling people to breathe earlier; adding the instruction to expel air as they hear the pitch also aids a full reflex breath to prepare to sing.
But I realised on Tuesday that the reason people breathe late is not through any intention to do so (which I think we knew) or even just from habit (even though it may be habitual), but because they were seeing the cue to start as external to themselves. People watch the director (and/or listen if counted in), but they experience that as the director’s task, which then hands over to them when it’s time to start singing. What’s needed to get people breathing early, then, is for them to experience the start of the music with the director’s cue, not after it.
So, we had everyone sing along with the count-in on their opening notes. If you want someone to participate mentally, get them to participate vocally and their brains will come along too! And once people were used to singing along literally, they could revert to the music as written, while singing along mentally with the cue – and the breaths were deep and early, giving a real sense of command to the opening.