Less is Still More with Cleeve Harmony

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Obligatory warm-up picObligatory warm-up picIt feels like cheating to use basically the same title for consecutive blog posts, but contriving something different would only make it less accurate.

Tuesday evening took me down towards Cheltenham to spend the evening with my friends at Cleeve Harmony. They had changed their rehearsal night from their usual Wednesday so I could come, as that is now also my own rehearsal night. (I will skip the occasional week with the Telfordaires, but not more than once a month and I had already used up my quota for high summer with Harmony University and – gasp – a week’s holiday.)

My remit for the evening was to focus primarily on the bigger-picture stuff, particularly the director and her assistant, but also with an eye and ear on the communicative impact of the music. Fortunately these are two things you can often do at once.

I have visited Cleeve Harmony a number of times over their 5 or 6 years of existence, and at wide enough intervals that I can really hear and see their development. Their director, Donna, has a much more stable and controlled conducting technique these days, and – probably not a coincidence – the chorus sound is cleaner and clearer, with good tonal integrity.

Having said that, there was still scope to calm her gestures further to increase clarity and ease of singing. First off, I noticed during the warm-up that, when leading an exercise that involved tapping the shoulders and the head, she stood with a beautifully open and rooted posture, and so I encouraged her to use that as her frame for conducting gesture.

This immediately came in useful with the first song we worked on. Our task was to take a song that was being sung in time and turn it into one being sung with groove; to take rhythmic accuracy, and inflect it with rhythmic character.

We addressed this with the chorus initially through the body: getting the feet right under the weight so that the core unlocked and the music started in the legs. This allowed the upper-body movements in their choreography to loosen up and start carrying the feel of the song. We then gave everyone – director and singers alike – a back-beat high-hat gesture, using the visual-kinaesthetic cues to adjust until the shape of the pulse as well as its timing were shared across the chorus.

The next stage put the singers back onto their choreography, with the director staying on the high-hat. Suddenly all kinds of interesting details sprang into life – consonants working percussively, natural shaping of lines. These were precipitated by the discovery of groove, but were facilitated by the concomitant reduction in gestural effort from the director. By taking the larger muscle groups in her arms out of play, she gave space for nuance to emerge.

We went through a similar process with a second song – also backbeat, but with a swing rather than rock groove, and consequently different gestural shapes. This one featured a considerable quantity of syncopation, and Donna had been tending to direct the onset of rhythmic events to keep these together. We found, though, that the chorus is now sufficiently familiar with the music that they can do this for themselves, and find the metrical framework of greater service to creating musical flow. Once again, a small backbeat gesture (this time a follow-through click) creates expressive space for the singers.

A specific discovery here was that this framework is of greatest help across phrase boundaries. The temptation is to direct the onset of events at the start of a phrase, move into showing metre for the middle, then go back to managing melodic rhythm at the cadence. It is actually more helpful to give the backbeat through the cadence and into the next phrase, giving structural continuity at the places where the music stops and starts.

In a third song, we experimented with gestural flatlining. In passages where the rhythmic flow is consistent, your beat doesn’t need to stay at the same size you’d use to set tempo, so after the onset of each phrase or section, you can progressively reduce the size of your gestures. This again gives space for the singers to project the song, whilst also giving extra salience when you use a normal sized gesture to articulate a significant musical event.

It was during this process that Donna remarked, ‘They don’t need me!’ – a discovery that included both pride in the competence in her chorus and perhaps a lurking worry that she would miss being needed. I encouraged her to feel good about it: it shows she has taught her chorus well.

It is indeed a wonderful feeling as a director when you can let the reins lie loose in your hands because the music is looking after itself without needing your intervention. It’s like cruise control (to switch between transport metaphors), you need to stay alert and in control as you might be needed at any moment, but everything works best at these moments if you sit back and enjoy the ride.

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