Bristol Fashion: Skills and Self-Confidence

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I spent Sunday with my friends in Bristol Fashion. I think this must have been my 5th visit in a bit over two years, and they always organise glorious weather. Even though it was drizzling when I arrived this time, once the singing started, the clouds parted. (I am sure this is nothing to either with the mild climate in the south-west of England or the fact that they always invite me in the months of May-September!)

A lot of our work this time focused less on skills per se than the psychology of confidence. There were certainly skills targeted for development (clear and positive articulation of word sounds for one), but what emerged as more central to the chorus’s quality of performance was their decision to use skills already acquired. One of the things about a group that has developed a long way in a short time is that it is very easy to default back to a lower level of performance because it is in fact not very long ago that that was the norm. They have the skills to perform with real beauty and believability to when they remember to deploy them, but they find it too easy to slip back into a more ordinary state of competence that not so long ago would have pleased them, but is no longer in the league they could be.

So there comes a point when the gradual acquisition of skills necessitates an up-dating of a group’s self-image. They have been in a very pleasant place recently, rising through the ranks, but still comfortably in the middle of the pack. So, they get the plaudits due to those who are making significant gains, without the expectations placed on those out in front. But these gains have taken them to a place where they need either to step out and accept a place in the vanguard or to slip back into the pack of also-rans.

In musical terms, this is about taking a positive attitude to what they sing, making the effort to communicate the content of their songs, not just sing along with an internal rendition of them. We talked about some specific technical things involved here. Breathing early was key in both vocal and mental readiness, as was building personal imagery to help them access a song’s meaning at will, rather than chuntering along on autopilot.

But in a deeper sense, this is about self-identity. It is about deciding that they are the kind of chorus that can achieve first-rate performances, and then acting accordingly. And accepting that if you actually do want to get better, you will necessarily have to change.

Part of the change we explored was in the director-chorus dynamic. Craig has a wonderful rapport with his singers, with a huge amount of mutual trust, which let us do some really quite advanced work on technique. It started out in developing the sound with which they started a ballad – the fragrance of orange blossom to inform the breath, a ball of radiance at eye level to inform the resonance – and this led on to asking the singers to hand this radiance over to Craig to work with.

This immediately brought both a much greater clarity and coherence to the sound, and a much more nuanced level of control to his hands. Once the connection was set up, we refined it by keeping his neck long and posture tall so that he didn’t intrude into the singers’ space and by seeing how little movement he could make and still control the sound. He soon chose to use his left hand much less, and had much more of the pertinent action going on at the level of his fingers, with much less in the shoulders or upper arms.

Magical things started to happen at this point. First, Craig could hear a lot more detail. It was the perception of a slightly unsynchronised onset from either side of the chorus that led him to experiment in using one hand only for most of the direction. Second, he was able to start controlling details of word sound and tone colour by adjusting his gestures rather than saying anything to the chorus. This one really is the holy grail of directing: the capacity just to be in a way that invites better singing.

The chorus response was most interesting. It was overwhelmingly positive, with a real sense of both love and renewed respect. Singers reported finding it easier to sing in a supported, resonant way and finding Craig’s direction clearer to watch with less distraction. But there were also comments that it made them concentrate harder (which pleased me!), and also the expression of a little regret at the loss of the mode nicknamed ‘dancing Craig’.

And you can understand the fondness for his physical energy and animation. But that’s part of the deal when a chorus gets better. A lot of choruses train their directors into over-doing it by responding so positively to the entertainment value it affords, but to move to a higher level, you need to move beyond mere energy into refinement. And, indeed, you need to stop relying on the director to remind you of everything you’ve rehearsed together.

I hadn’t anticipated doing so much work with Craig when I went down – as I say, it emerged out of the needs of the moment. But it was certainly an efficient use of the time: he has now opened up possibilities that could allow the chorus to achieve a lot more in his rehearsals without saying a word. And I think it also helped the chorus work out how to reconfigure their new self-identity: they are proud of the director and want to do well for him. If it takes paying close attention and breathing early to achieve that, then they seem to think those are prices worth paying.

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