Breath and Expression with the Belles

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belles2Sunday took me over to Coventry to work with my friends the Belles of Three Spires. They are deep into their preparation for the Ladies Association of Barbershop Singers convention in the autumn, and the day was booked to give the opportunity for some detailed, in-depth work on their contest package.

One theme to emerge during the day was singing not just accurately, but with expressive purpose. The breath-points aren’t there just to breathe, for instance, they are there to articulate the moments in the story where the protagonist has the realisation that motivates the next line. The words tell us what is going on, but the harmony tells us how the protagonist feels about it. Most importantly for their ballad, the melody is the heart of the song.

We worked on this aspect by first having everyone sing the melody (including following where it was passed from part to part), using this as the vehicle to develop its expressive shape. Imagine that you are singing this as a soloist: the sweep and flow of the line, how you’d glory in the long notes. The harmony parts need to have this shape in mind as they sing their own lines; they need to feel the way the melody drives the emotional narrative. At the same time, the harmony parts themselves need to be sung melodically - they need to support the melody, and they can do this best by bringing the same commitment to flow to their own lines as they brought to the tune when they were singing that.

One of the lovely things about this kind of holistic coaching is that you ‘fix’ a lot of technical details without ever having to talk about them. An embellishment that is felt as part of the character’s development comes out in tune; a chord that is recognised as surprising comes out balanced.

There were some sections of music that did need nitty-gritty technical work, however. Dirty little chromatic sections that never quite come into focus after a while start to be scary, and after a while people deal with them by just putting their heads down and charging through them to the bit just after where they feel safe. Places like this need slowing down and taking bit by bit to give people time to hear what’s going on. Once people have had a chance to hear and understand how the chords fit together, their notes start making sense and they start to feel less anxious.

One particular issue we uncovered in this slow work was that it was the chords on linguistically unimportant syllables, usually with neutral vowels where the problems often lay. In speech, our brains mostly skip over these sounds, and when we are engaged with the meaning of a lyric this can happen in singing too. But if you sing them positively, with as singerly a placement as the more linguistically marked vowels, the chords have a lot more chance to come into focus. We boiled this experience down to the advice: commit to positive neutral syllables and you will feel confident about the rest of the phrase.

The up-tempo number had a different set of challenges, as is so often the case. It was musically more straightfoward, but made greater demands on the continuity of breath - the rhythmic articulation of the words risked interrupting the vocal line. We used some standard vocal exercises such as bubbling to kick-start the process of reconnecting the breath and getting it rooted more deeply in the body.

And this process in turn revealed how many singers were working in much shorter phrases than their director would wish. As we clarified and enforced the breathing plan, interestingly, the connection with breath also improved significantly. It is not only the case that you need to breathe deeply to sustain a long phrase; it is also the case that if you only sing short phrases, you will only be able to take shallow breaths. Cheating, that is, does not always make things easier.

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