Continuing the Journey with Bristol A Cappella

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Warm-up pic with hats and coatsWarm-up pic with hats and coats

After my visit to Signature last week, I took the train across to Bristol for another session with my friends at Bristol A Cappella on the Sunday. They had spent the Saturday working with performance coach Sandra Lea-Riley, so I came prepared to spend at least some of the time helping them process and consolidate what they had covered with a coach they had just worked with for the first time. It’s great to get input from different people, but it’s important that we don’t stand in each other’s light.

Sandra had done a great job with them – really transformed their levels of individual expressiveness – and we had some useful discussions reflecting on how she had achieved it, and how they could continue to develop these skills and transfer them into the rest of the repertoire. She had also identified a need to develop their techniques of articulation/enunciation, which chimed with their feedback from the Nailsea Festival in the autumn, and so helping with that became my primary task for the day.

Projection of the text is necessarily central to story-telling - if you can’t quite hear what the words are, you may get the overall sentiment but not the detail of the narrative. It is simultaneously an element of technique and of expression, and we worked on both ends of the equation. Thinking about meaning motivates the text and invests it with specific power, whilst identifying which word sounds in particular need attention bring that intention to full fruition.

Contextual factors are relevant too. Words at the very start of the song are particularly important, as the audience has yet to key into the song’s world, and if they miss the first few words, they’ll struggle to understand what follows. Likewise, surprising words and images need more articulation than lyrics that fall in patterns you might expect. It’s analogous to talking on the phone – if you have a lot of crackle on the line, you can make out what someone is saying if you are familiar with the subject and can fill in the gaps, but the less familiar the content is, the more you struggle to make sense of it through the interference.

Role in the texture also made a difference. When a particular part was carrying the melody, they tended to sing with a greater commitment to the narrative than the accompanying parts, even when the harmonising voices also shared the lyric. It made such a difference when the other parts continued to let the melody through, but sang consonants with as much energy as the melodic singers did.

We also considered how the term ‘echo’ for the arrangement device of repeating the last few words of a phrase as a rhythmic filler is not entirely helpful. It makes them sound as if they are secondary, or derivative, whereas expressively they often need to be sung with greater urgency than the original phrase. The rhetorical function of repetition is emphasis, not simply to fill in time before the next sentence starts.

Energised articulation isn’t just the means by which the story becomes audible, however. It’s also a means by which to raise the emotional temperature of a song. In conversation, we increase the clarity of our words when are message becomes more important; it’s part of how we signal to our listener’s that we care about this and they need to pay attention. We speak more lightly for routine, less important matters.

By definition, something that is significant enough to be worth writing a song about, arranging it for a choral ensemble in up to 8 parts, and then investing hours of rehearsal in, isn’t routine. I didn’t use the word ‘stageworthy’ when we explored this idea, but I probably should have done.

And it’s not just the audience who feels this increased vividness of expression – as performers you experience it too. When you invest your word sounds with greater carrying-power, you find yourself paying more attention to the content of the song. Both the analytical work of identifying the key moments in the text’s meaning and imagery, and the physical work of projecting the consonants draw you more deeply into its message, and counteract the semantic depletion effects of in-depth rehearsal.

One of the reasons Bristol A Cappella needed to start Project Consonant is because they have been doing a good deal of focused work on vowels in recent months, and it is often the case that once you have upgraded one part of your technical armoury, you discover that other aspects that used to sound adequate have now been out-classed by your new skills. (It’s like the way it’s only when you buy a new top that you notice how shabby your old jeans look.) And when I think back to some of the vowel work we did together last spring, I can really hear the difference this work has made.

In that category, I’d also include skills such as pitch retention (not yet 100% reliable, but much better than when I first knew them), balance and clarity in their pieces with more complex textures, and both the vocal focus and expressive authority of the alto section. One of the lovely things about working with a group repeatedly over a period of years is this opportunity to see this process of skill-development. I look forward to seeing the results of the new steps they took on their journey over this weekend.

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