Choral

The Cultural Politics of Authenticity

Social media is often a colossal waste of time, but you get an interesting and nuanced discussion on a subject that is both practical and principled just often enough to make it worth keeping looking at it. I’d like to reflect on one such discussion I saw amongst a group of choral directors recently, as the various contributions teased out a range of perspectives on a thorny question.

The question was whether a British choir should assume Puerto Rican accents to sing songs from West Side Story. A director had asked their choir to do so, but some of the choir’s younger members were ‘appalled’ at what they considered a racist request.

Some of the participants in the discussion supported the conductor on the grounds of musical authenticity. It would sound silly in choral British accents, they contended, and recommended reference to the original film as a guide. (Though I’d think reference to the recent remake would be a better guide from this point of view, since it uses actual Latinx actors for those roles, not white actors in brown-face as many are in the 1961 version.)

Helping People Back to Choir

VFPlogoI don’t know if there has been any attempt to gather data about the overall state of choral singing since covid, but all the anecdotal information I’m coming across suggests that choirs are mostly back up and going, but depleted. A few groups didn’t make it through and disbanded – not necessarily directly because of the pandemic, but the stresses of the situation brought underlying problems to breaking point. A few groups, meanwhile, have come back with increased numbers and are facing the enviable challenge of integrating a high proportion of new singers all at once.

Most, however, seem to be reporting a drop in numbers of about 30% from pre-covid levels. The first ones lost were those who opted out during the zoom era, either finding the whole online rehearsing thing presented too many obstacles for them, or dropping out after a while because they found the experience unsatisfactory. Some of these singers have come back on return to live singing, but not all.

What is Vocal Freedom anyway?

VFPlogoHaving shared some of the background to The Vocal Freedom Project in a previous post, I thought it might be helpful to explore in a little more depth what I mean by the phrase ‘vocal freedom’ in this context. It is one of the ideas that is both multidimensional and holistic – you can think about it from a number of different angles, but in practice they all work together in a single, unified experience.

The Physical Dimension is the most obvious, in that it is the one we are most likely to directly perceive in ourselves and in others, both visually and aurally. We find physical freedom by shedding extraneous muscular tension – that is, muscular engagement that isn’t doing anything productive. Tongue, jaw, neck, shoulders, glutes are all areas we tense up when under stress then never quite loosen off again when the immediate stressor goes away. Our bodies get locked up, our breath becomes shallow, and we hear this in our voices as strain and loss of resonance. Vocal Freedom Project workshops start with the body as the dimension which is both most accessible and usually the most urgent to address.

Introducing the Vocal Freedom Project

VFPlogoToday tickets have gone on sale for the first of what will probably become a series of workshops called the Vocal Freedom Project. We’ve got quite detailed info about the VFP’s rationale and aims over on the project page, but I thought it might also be useful to give a little background into its genesis.

The project was born in a conversation back in early December with my friend Myra, who sang with me in Magenta for ten years. I can’t remember exactly how she phrased her expression of her need to sing, but she crystallized a lot of the observations I had been making over the months since live singing had restarted in the UK about what the lockdown experience had done to people’s voices.

More on Breath

In my last post I considered one specific way that James Nestor’s book Breath has got me rethinking how I train singers (and indeed, how I sing myself), today I will romp through a number of his other points that suggest our craft’s claim to healthfulness is more well-founded.

  1. Exhale. Many of us, Nestor contends, spend much of our lives breathing in shallowly on top of air that we’ve not fully exhaled. Emptying the lungs thoroughly between breaths gives us better gas exchange in the lungs (and thus better blood chemistry and thence better-functioning organs).

    Anyone I have directed, and many I have coached will know that I recommend people exhale completely before taking their first breath to sing. As a conductor I exhale too, and so can feel the natural timing for the coordinated intake to start singing. I observe that people who empty their lungs prior to singing take more deep-set, relaxed breaths and thus produce a more resonant tone. They also find it easier to sing complete phrases.

On Breath

breathWhen two people you know mention a book in the same week, especially when it's a book whose title relates directly to your core professional interest, you know you’re going to have to read it. James Nestor’s Breath isn’t written for singers (although one of his many eccentric case studies is a choral conductor), it is written for human beings who breathe. But of course those of us involved in singing like to think this is one of the things that makes our craft healthful, so it seemed prudent to check it out and see exactly how well things cross-reference.

Breath presents itself as one of those revelatory, ‘this book will change your life’ kind of narratives, and with its interweaving of ancient, traditional texts and modern science (though rather fringe science in some cases), skirts along that line between ‘engagingly plausible’ and ‘woo’. As one of the friends who had read it put it, ‘Some of it is quite bonkers, but some things make a lot of sense’. So, it’s not one to read uncritically, and I’m going to focus my discussion of it on the bits which seemed more likely.

(This may, therefore, turn into a display of confirmation bias, ahem.)

Remediation vs Growth

While we’re thinking about balance, here is another example of dynamically-connected opposites we need to keep in equilibrium in the rehearsal process. To what extent should we be focused on remedial work, fixing problems, correcting technique, bringing people up to the standards we currently expect, and to what extent should we be stretching them into new areas of skill development and artistic ambition?

This is a perennial question for the choral director – it brings to mind Jim Clancy’s ‘type 1 and type 2’ rehearsing, but it is particularly salient now as people are gradually returning to live rehearsing after, in some cases, nearly 18 months of no rehearsing, or only being able to meet online. A lot of choirs find themselves out of practice in various ways; there’s a lot more remediation to be done than usual.

In these circumstances, the instinct is to focus on the basics. We need to get the voices connected back with the bodies and the breath, we need to retrain the ears to connect with the rest of the sound and the eyes to connect with conductor gesture. (And, indeed, the conductor needs to get their hands and ears connected back up to make that gesture effective again.)

The Balanced Voice – Part 4: The nature of balance

Jansson's web of 'forcefields'Jansson's web of 'forcefields'My previous two posts in this series enumerated a variety of elements that need to be balanced in the singing voice, and we now have a good body of material to act as exemplars while we consider what we mean by the term ‘balanced’.

The archetypal image that comes to mind is a set of scales, with two weights suspended either side of a fulcrum, which come into equilibrium when equal in weight and distance from the centre. Or, of course, when the difference in weight is compensated for by a counter-balancing difference in distance. Even this simplest source metaphor carries within it the idea of a degree of flexibility – it’s not just equal quantities of things either side of the centre, it’s about their relationship to one another.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.


Archive by date

Syndicate content Syndicate content