Greg Clancy on Singing Freely

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I mentioned in my first post about BABS Directors Academy last month that I had a pile of notes about Greg’s thoughts on freedom in singing that deserved a post of their own in due course. The moment has come to revisit these and reflect on them.

This theme emerged when Greg was talking about the importance of the warm-up (something on which our hearts beat as one). His goal is to get the chorus in a certain spot, ‘vocally, mentally, spiritually,’ and will often undertake this himself. If you do delegate the warm-up, he added, you need to be sure that it is someone who really understands what you’re aiming for in this.

What I find so interesting with how Greg talks about his processes is that he so often starts with very practical matters – in this case, the Vocal Majority’s approach to vocal production – but these always connect into more holistic questions. So his discussion of how they focus on a sense of lift, both physically (cheeks, soft palate), and psychologically (imagine the sound coming from your hairline) morphed straight into considering the chorus’s emotional state.

People often arrive at rehearsal carrying a lot of stress from their daily lives. Singing with freedom isn’t just about removing tension from the tongue and jaw, it’s about the whole process of helping people shed that stress. (Which of course often settles in the tongue and jaw – the physical and the emotional work together.) He talked about the warm-up’s role in developing emotional engagement: ‘unlocking the emotional scar tissue’ (he said that term was really too strong for what he meant but it expressed the idea clearly).

The goal of the warm-up is, he said, to help people sing ‘out of their boxes’. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a phrase that I have been thinking about a lot in the context of remote rehearsing. The zoom experience, of singing by yourself, often in a small room, visually cooped up in little squares on the screen can get people singing within themselves, and disconnecting the voice from both its physical support and its communicative intent. It’s something The Telfordaires discovered had happened when we were able to meet for live rehearsals during the autumn, and has shaped our approach since.

So I was primed and ready for the wonderful realisation that Greg’s use of the same phrase led me to that these boxes come to regular rehearsals too. They are the boxes of our own making that we build round ourselves, to protect us in daily life. We hide the most precious bits of ourselves in them – our joy, our hopes, our fears, our desires – to prevent them getting damaged by malicious, or simply uncaring, people we encounter. And it is those precious, most human parts of us that make our voices beautiful when we sing.

Greg went on to talk a lot about how freedom is thus a product of safety. The warm-up, and by extension the rehearsal as a whole, is about creating an environment in which people can feel safe to express themselves, supported by the group, which is bigger than all its members.

There were two specific things he mentioned as part of this process that readers of Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code will recognise. First is about how the response to error creates or destroys safety. Greg talked about not merely tolerating error but actively welcoming it. He spoke of asking, ‘Who made that mistake?’ and then celebrating when someone answered. The rationale was educational: if they know they did it wrong, I know they can fix it, so they’re already half way there, whereas if people haven’t realised they’ve made a mistake, we have a lot more work to do. But the trust that engenders goes beyond the educational.

The second was the importance of frequent positive reinforcement. You can’t just say something encouraging once and expect it to create a safe space. You have to send the cues constantly, saturating the experience with the message that people are valued for themselves, with all their flaws, and that mistakes are part of the process.

The other thought I had about this integration of vocal and emotional freedom was that, while it’s relevant for all singers, it may be particularly relevant to men. Western culture’s standard models of masculinity often value stoicism, and devalue vulnerability. It may be harder for men to allow what’s in their boxes to show because their socialisation has encouraged the building of strong boxes to remove emotionality from their public personas. One of the things that singing (and indeed the arts in general) offers is the opportunity to connect with that part of the self in a context where emotional literacy is not merely legitimated but valued.

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