New Music and Performing Confidence with Vivat!

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Vivat! demonstrating the technique of standing on one leg to engage the coreVivat! demonstrating the technique of standing on one leg to engage the core

Almost exactly a year since I last worked with the West Midlands Police Choir, I was back for another workshop with them on Saturday. They have rebranded as Vivat! and have the air of a much more established choir since I last saw them. This shows not just in seeing more people at the workshop, but seeing them build the infrastructure of longer-term projects and more ambitious, such as fund-raising for a trip to France next year, amongst their more immediate rehearsal and performance goals.

The workshop had two main areas of focus.

The first was to introduce a brand-new piece of repertoire, with the purpose of exploring methods of learning new music. As with many community and/or workplace choirs, Vivat! has a mix of both music-readers and ear-singers, and so there is a constant need to find ways to stretch but not baffle both constituencies.

We took a jigsaw approach to the piece - a short, atmospheric funeral lament by John Tavener - since that reflected the way it was written, with much of the material derived from a single chant-like theme, underpinned by a drone. Having introduced the theme during warm-up (as an exercise in legato of and consistency of vowel placement - the primary technical/artistic challenges it presented), we could then work through the successively more challenging variants Tavener introduces.

It comes in major and minor versions, each of which appear with different rhythms to accommodate different texts, and in both unison and harmonised in thirds. Both versions also appear in inversion, each in duet with the prime version it mirrors, and this is probably the trickiest bit to get your head round, as the resultant harmonies are more surprising.

But the ear will accept them, when given time and space to absorb their flavour, and connect it expressively with the sense of the piece. We also noted that singing with a positive vowel sound helped the ear accept surprising harmonic combinations as expressively purposeful rather than merely odd.

Interestingly, the part of the piece that presents the greatest performing challenge is the drone. In terms of note-learning, singing a single sustained pianissimo note, managed by choral breathing looks easy. But to maintain its sense of presence, to nurture the envelope of sound with which it wraps the rest of the material, takes considerable stamina of attention. It needs the singers to live in the moment, to be actively connected with the sound at all times.

But equally, when they extend themselves to commit to sustaining the sound, they are rewarded by the emotionally- and spiritually-resonant atmosphere the composer wishes them to create.

The second agenda for the workshop was along the theme of performing confidence, exploring the factors that can inhibit a choir from singing out, and introducing exercises to overcome those inhibitions. There are issues here of coping with unfamiliar acoustics, of the physiological effects of adrenaline, and the psychological need for safety.

Understanding the processes that sometimes get in the way is useful in that it stops a moment of uncertainty moving into panic. There are those who say that understanding is the booby-prize - and while I get what they mean (it’s no practical use knowing how something works in theory if you can’t do it), it is also a useful part of the way our self-awareness can regulate our responses.

But you need practical activities too. We explored exercises both for the longer-term preparation in rehearsal and the warm-up on the day of a concert that will help set up the full pschyo-physical mechanism. Vocal (particularly support and resonance) exercises to get the voice flowing freely, exercises for the ears and the mind to counter-balance a temporary excess of adrenaline, and mental preparation to give the imagination a sense of control over the event.

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