Exploring Resonance and Emotion with Bristol A Cappella

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Another warm-up shot: "Bananas of the world unite!"Another warm-up shot: "Bananas of the world unite!"I spent the first two days of the bank-holiday weekend with my friends at Bristol A Cappella. We had two full days for coaching the chorus, plus a two-hour session on the Saturday night for music-team training. One of the (many) triumphs of the weekend was pacing it so that we were still capable or productive work during the final hour of Sunday!

Another challenge is working out exactly what to blog about, since by definition when you have considerably more time together than usual, you have considerably more eventful and interesting things to think about on the way home. And considerably less brain with which to do the thinking, come to that.

One of the areas we focused on repeatedly was resonance: taking a choral sound that had clarity and integrity, and giving it greater presence and focus. We approached it from a variety of different angles and thereby found ourselves deconstructing the distinction between technical and expressive aspects of performance.

When we were working on the performance aspect of the repertoire, we approached sound through the dimension of characterisation, much as we had with our metaphor of manspreading on my last visit. There were a variety of modes of being and expression to explore, from devil-may-care to familial, and in each, it was a case of finding a place where the physical and emotional stance of the body allowed the voice to emerge with a tone that was both authentic and compelling. There was also a moment when the melody just needed to be a bit more Disney.

At other times, we explored technical dimensions. Sandy Marron’s typology of resonance in the dome and the beak gave us a useful structure to develop complementary aspects of tone, and also a vocabulary to articulate what the music needed to fulfil different expressive purposes.

We also did some intensive work on Sunday in bringing certain vowel sounds into focus. We extracted the key words which needed work (interestingly, a similar set of vowel sounds in both of the main songs we worked on), and worked on them in isolation until we found which combination of demonstration, gesture and metaphor helped this group of singers refine the sound at will.

And then, when we went back to the song, and used the words in context, suddenly the communicative shape came alive. It was quite clear that everybody had had certain expressive intentions all along, and the technical refinement suddenly gave them the wherewithal to realise those intentions. You know something is right with the world when people tell you that their main difficulty after an intensive bit of technical work was to avoid getting so emotional it interfered with the singing.

I can’t write about our resonance work without mentioning bubbling. You need to have integrity of sound before you supercharge it, but really it’s almost shocking how much difference this makes to the sound. You need to bubble for longer than you think you can – a whole song makes even fluent bubblers dig deep – but for the ratio of results to the time expended it achieved more than anything else we did.

We also spent some time early on working on their director Iain’s conducting technique. Doing this at the start of the weekend turned out to be a good move, as any time thereafter that I took a step towards him, he reconnected with what we’d worked on first thing.

I particularly enjoyed working with him on the relationship between gesture and harmony. The choir is working towards the mixed chorus contest at the BABS Convention next month, and so are learning a couple of barbershop standards to be able to join in at the close of the convention.

(Incidentally, they are exactly the kind of choir the competition was set up to attract – choirs from related traditions who wouldn’t otherwise go to that convention, rather than choruses put together from regular barbershoppers who fancied a go at a new kind of contest.)

These numbers are, in terms of lyric content, essentially fluff, but they are full of gloriously clean barbershoppy chords, and so make an excellent context in which to play with the expressive power of dominant-type 7ths. I first asked Iain to notice where the 7ths were as he conducted, not least because I had already noticed that he had an intuitive tendency to lift his heels and his gestures as he came to them.

Once he was also more consciously aware of their location, I asked him to replace his gestural lift with a sense of grounding the chords instead. He responded by keeping his feet still, widening his back and bringing his hands nearer the diaphragm. He was rewarded with a much more vibrant, ringy sound on those chords.

This is an interesting case of the principle of gestural counter-balance in conducting. If you want to support a high note, you bring your gesture down; conversely, you help keep a deep note in focus by lifting the hands. Here, the director’s intuition had responded to the lift that harmonic charge gives to the musical flow, but to achieve that sense of lift in the sound, he needed to give it a gestural and postural foundation to launch from.

I’ll write about our session with the music team for a future post, that’s enough for today.

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