Taking Rhapsody to the Edge

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I spent Saturday in Peterborough with Rhapsody Chorus for what turned out to be an intensive coaching session. Part of the challenge was from working on music that was as yet very fresh in preparation, so the singers were working harder all day than they would with more familiar repertoire. At the same time, the very freshness meant we weren't having to try and move beyond any particularly ingrained habits, so the distance travelled was commensurately greater.

A theme that emerged several times during the day, and then reappeared in our debrief session at the end was that the place where effective work takes place is at the edge of your current ability. If you can do something comfortably, it's having a nice time singing (which isn't itself a band thing to do!) but you're not particularly learning anything. The things you need to spend rehearsal times on are the things that you can't quite do yet, but you can get close enough that you know a few more tries will get you there.

An important corollary to this was articulated by one of the singers: you need to feel okay about making some mistakes. The desire for excellence is an invaluable thing, but if it instils a fear of making errors, it can start to hold you back. There is a time and a place for perfection, but you also need to feel safe to unpack things and play with them in between.

Indeed, I am sure I have mentioned before that I use the incidence of trivial errors and memory glitches as a way to monitor coaching effectiveness. When people start to get random blanks, and 'what's the first word here?' again moments, I know that we have moved to a deeper level of learning than their pre-existing autopilot and are in a place to set up longer-term growth. The digging they have to do at these points to find what they thought they knew are vigorous acts of learning that add a stronger dimension to their knowledge of the music than simple repetition in their comfort zone would.

And, particularly on a long day like this, there comes a point where people think they are getting tired, and could ease off a bit. But there's often just a bit more in the tank than you thought at these points, and challenging the mental stamina here is where you get some really quite amazing work done. You only get to this point by going through an extended and intensive session, and it doesn't last all that long. We had about 45 minutes of craft-type work on a ballad that really made the singers dig deep, and then the sporadic brain-blanks turned into an avalanche of brain-blanks, and the moment is gone. It is one of those little ironies in singing that at about the point that the voice is warmed up to perfection, the brain is about done.

At that stage, we turned the attention off the singers, and onto their director, Helen Glavina, and spent the last part of the afternoon refining her craft.

One specific element of technique we looked at was bringing her thumbs into line with the rest of the hand. My observations when writing my choral conducting book suggested that sometimes people intuitively stretch their thumbs up at an angle from their hands as a way to elicit a brighter sound, but that it can also introduce vocal tension. The directors I saw who produced the cleanest tone from their singers tended to direct with long, in-line thumbs.

Making this change gave her better control of vowel shape as she directed. The lines became more consistently placed and the sounds better-matched, with the result that she produced a smoother and cleaner sound.

This kind of work operates in dialogue with the ensemble-building work of vocal craft. If your singers don't have a basic foundation of good technique, refining your conducting gesture is not going to supply that . But once they are on the case with developing these technical skills, it becomes possible to adapt your gestural habits so as to facilitate their consistent application.

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