Exploring Breath and Emotion with The Venus Effect

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On Friday night I finally got to have the coaching session with The Venus Effect that we had had to cancel for snow three weeks earlier. It was the first time I’d heard them since our session just before I disappeared to Australia and I was looking forward to hearing what they’d done with the techniques for unit sound we’d worked on then.

It turns out that regular technical work makes a difference. Who knew?

We spent part of the session extending this work. In exercises we played with alternating adjacent vowels on a unison to hear the shifting overtones. This translates in repertoire to the experience of harmonically static passages where the colours shift with the different vowels sounds of the lyric. It was notable both that it was very clear which songs had already been subject to this kind of close-listening and which hadn’t, and how much more fluently the quartet achieved good results when applying them to new repertoire than four months ago.

We also spent a good chunk of the evening revisiting and developing the work we did last time turning breath points into thought points. The first stage of this was thinking in terms of counter-factuals: if the breath point is the moment you decide what you will say next, you can put this into relief by imagining how else that sentence might finish. When I fall in love…it will be on Wednesday.

As we worked through the song, though, we discovered that in quite a few places the emotional cast of the song as they were feeling it, whilst dramatically coherent with the meaning of the lyrics, wasn’t entirely helpful for the voice. It makes sense to sing the phrase ‘In a restless world like this is…’ with some exasperation, but that invites a breath that sits higher in the chest than is ideal, resulting in shorter-breathed phrasing and less resonance than a deeper-set breath would deliver.

This is a really interesting intersection of technique and expression, and it needs addressing at both levels. If you only address technique, then you leave the performers having to choose between breathing well or communicating the story. We need to find a way to do both through the same impulse.

We spent some time with the quartet lying on the floor in the position that Alexander Technique uses – head supported on a book, knees bent to allow the feet to lie flat on the floor. This allows gravity to address physical alignment: the shoulders and back gradually settle into the floor. From there we explored breathing into the lower back, directing the breath to where the back meets the floor.

Singing from that position gives you lots of useful information about when you are breathing too high, as you can feel your back leave the floor. Putting an object on your tummy to lift as you breathe in (pitch pipe, glasses case, at one point the cat rather distractingly volunteered to help too) also gives you a focus to monitor which parts of your body you are primarily inflating.

When we had the breath sitting in a more voice-friendly location, we went back to the dimension of expression, looking to find ways to feel the song where a deep-set breath would be an authentic emotional response to its narrative. It lay in the quality of integrity: in a ballad about finding your own fundamental truth, exasperation may sit in the upper chest, but a commitment to honesty goes to your core.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed when you hear someone say something that comes from their values how their voice takes on a plangent, clarion quality. There is a clarity and ring that tells you: this is what matters most to this person, if ever I need to pay attention to them, it is now.

In song, this emerges as a free, supported, resonant sound; the voice ringing without extraneous tension, with a glorious bloom. Possibly this is why we hear greater levels of musical beauty as somehow more convincing, more believable. Our lived experience tells us that when people are aligned with their inner sense of purpose, we can hear it in their vocal quality.

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