Royce Ferguson in Action
At the BABS convention last week I had the opportunity to observe Royce Ferguson coaching Bolton’s Cottontown Chorus. Royce is best known in the barbershop world as the director who took the Westminster Chorus to their first two international chorus medals in 2006 and 2007. It is not surprising therefore that he is in considerable demand as a coach and he is becoming a regular visitor to the UK in that capacity.
In his work with Cottontown he focused on the integrity of tone, on maintaining a sound that was neither breathy nor pushy. Indeed, he identified putting energy behind a breathy tone as the primary cause of vocal strain. He relentlessly insisted on a refinement of tone in which the voice is ‘always connected but never heavy-handed’. It is an active tone, not a passive one, which needs constant attention to keep it centred. He talked a lot about letting the natural beauty of the sound resonate without feeling the need to do things to it:
Keep it simple – the music is already there. The more true you are to it, the more it speaks. … The more you pile on top of it, the further you get away from it.
In service of this agenda, he used an extended metaphor around the sound of the piano. This included the idea of the vibrating strings as a way to get breath out of the voice: how the strings need to be taut if they are to ring. This developed into an awareness of harmonic resonance, of the halo of overtones and undertones the voice generates around a single pitch. He encouraged the singers to put their energy into the high and the low parts of the piano and to minimise their efforts on the middle strings. The size and quality of the piano was also implicated in the resonance; you want to be playing a 9’ Steinway rather than toy piano. This focused the attention on timbre rather than volume – an impressive sound isn’t about singing louder, it’s about singing with more richness.
I found this interesting for two reasons. One was the way it crossed the voice/instrument divide so productively. I have critiqued before that discourse of the natural that posits singing as being a more primal (and therefore superior) form of music-making than the artificial technologies of instrumental music, and this was a nice demonstration of how instrumental thinking is no barrier to vocal musicianship. The other was the way that developing a single metaphoric theme allowed him to keep the singers’ attention on the task over extended periods: he spent fifteen minutes on the first three notes of a song, for instance.
And this continuity of attention was central to the results he was obtaining. His own focus was unwavering, and any time anyone slipped back into the vocal habits he was replacing he gently but insistently brought them back into his sonic world. It showed vividly how central aural and imaginative stamina is to musical exellence.
Watching Royce coach is a case-study in the interpersonal process that Merleau Ponty calls ‘inhabitance in the same house of being’. Communication here isn’t about the coach sending messages that the chorus receives, deciphers and acts on, but about setting up a way of being in the world that the singers join in with. There was a significant verbal dimension, as I’ve summarised, but the concepts also lived in his gestures. And the gestures that presented his ides as he spoke also continued as he gave vocal demonstrations and as the chorus sang, thus gluing together explanation, modeling and action into a single shared world of understanding.
Much of the effectiveness of his coaching lies in his own physical demeanour. He has a very integrated posture without kinks or bumps that might distort the voice. You can see it in the integrity of his back and in the line of his wrists. He also carries his musical intention right through to the ends of his fingers. He has either studied Alexander Technique or has simply had the good fortune to develop a helpfully undistorted habitual way of being in the world.
So it isn’t surprising that several conversations I heard over the weekend revolved around how long it took various ensembles to ‘get’ Royce. Once you step into his world, you can do great things with him, but if you didn’t experience that connection with him, you would be completely lost. And it also raises interesting questions about what he leaves behind – how successful the singers will be at re-entering that world when he isn’t there to invite them into it.
The director is key here. And it was interesting to see that, while Royce focused most of his efforts on the chorus, he also spent time with their director, Neil Firth, inviting him into that gestural/conceptual/sound world at the same time as Neil directed the chorus. Indeed, I suspect that he may have spent more time focused on the director had there not been an audience for the session. It is a reasonably vulnerable position for a director to be coached in front of the chorus (though also a very valuable one of course), but it possibly puts more pressure on the director than necessary to do this in a public setting. But it is his capacity to step back into that space that will determine the level of retention from the sessions. The singers will help him and each other find it – which is why it helps to have Royce work with the whole chorus, not just train the director to do it himself – but it will be his job to keep them there and make that space their own.