I've just had a stimulating coaching weekend in Tadcaster, home of the John Smiths brewery. On Saturday I was working with Chordmasters, a subset of the Spirit of Harmony chorus based in the Vale of York, and on Sunday with the quartet Qube. Although all of Qube also sing with Chordmasters, it turned into two quite different coaching agendas, since Chordmasters were heading towards a major performance the following week, while Qube were working on material that’s very much work-in-progress for later in the year.
With a looming performance goal, I found myself taking an approach that was very audience-focused. The changes to the performance were all in service of making the artistic vision implicit in what they were already doing more vivid and colourful, not to add new ideas or try and change the vision. The work was also strongly prioritised in terms of what will make the most difference to the experience of their listeners next Saturday. These were both economic decisions (how is this time best spent given that the development time before the performance is by definition limited?; what gives most bang for the rehearsal buck?) and psychological decisions (what will send the singers into the performance with maximum confidence?). People have to face the dragons of their skill deficits in order to grow, but there’s no point attempting that if there’s not time to slay them before the next time you face an audience.
With Qube, the work was a lot more exploratory, and thus more music-focused. We could do things like exploring the relationship between tempo, key and tone colour – how when you loosen the groove a song sits in rhythmically, a previously appropriate timbre and voice placement starts to sound over-assertive. Or finding ways to develop consensus on the feel, or flavour of rhythm within an agreed tempo. Taking the time to duet each combination of parts within a passage always produces a magically disproportionate improvement in the performance relative to the simplicity of the technique, as each member of the ensemble gets the space to listen and learn about both the voices of their fellow singers and the inner details of how all the parts interact.
With both groups we had a productive time in exercises that the guys characterised as ‘defragmenting’ their heads. These exercises were basically finding ways to disrupt their established aural/kinaesthetic relationship with songs – breaking habitual responses in order to make space to do things in new ways. Singing a passage in several different keys – a semitone either side of the proper key, then a tone higher and lower – forced the singers to listen to the given pitch more carefully as well as to each other and thus brought more clarity to the sound as well as stopping the pitch from slipping. Trying a passage in lots of different tempi allowed singers to experience how each speed had a different effect on the feel of a song, and a consequent influence on all sorts of aspects of the vocal performance – tone colour, articulation, how you shape the lyrics.
It’s interesting with these kinds of exercises that the more confusing people find them at first, the more effective they are likely to be. At the first attempt people are generally astonished that they flounder at such an apparently simple task. Then after three or four variations, they find themselves astonished at that, now they’ve got the hang of the changes, the song sounds so much better than it did in the form they are used to. And it’s when they’ve got to the point where they’re enjoying being able to do it so well that you know they can go back to the original key or the original tempo and meet it afresh, exerting their musical will without being sucked back into the ways they were wanting to move on from.