Bristol Fashion Takin’ it Slow
On Sunday I was back with my friends in Bristol Fashion, for my fourth coaching visit since May 2009. And what a difference they have made in two years! The clarity, resonance and confidence in their singing has really improved, and each time there are more singers on the risers – it is a sure sign that things are going well when you have more people wanting to join than are leaving.
One of the encouraging aspects of coaching this chorus is that each time I go, I find the things we were working on last time well embedded and secure, allowing us to move onto new challenges. The chorus uses the technique of bubbling for continuity of breath and enhanced resonance with so much more ease and security than this time last year, and the issues over synchronisation we focused on last August are likewise much improved.
The challenge this time was learning how to handle music of significantly greater length and complexity than they have attempted before. The arrangement in question was Aaron Dale’s chart of ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’, done originally for State Line Grocery, and it is a huge edifice of ever-increasingly extravagant gestures. The chorus was clearly responding to it with great joie de vivre, but it’s not one of those charts that’s going to sing itself – there’s so much of it, and it goes by so fast! They needed strategies to get a handle on all the detail.
We started off by building a song-map. This broke down what could be experienced as one huge great big lump of song into more manageable portions, and gave some signposts so everyone could have a mental picture of where they were in the song. This will be useful as the song moves towards performance as a structure to hang the presentational shape on, but it also had immediate use as a tool to help locate smaller sections as we pinpointed them for detailed work.
The main strategy we worked on to deal with all the ‘stuff’ in the arrangement was slow practice. If something is currently beyond your control, you can usually manage it just fine if you only slow it down enough to give your brain time to get on the case. When your brain has absorbed it at a pace where it doesn’t have to scramble to keep up, you can increase the speed again and the detail will stay in place. We combined slow (about quarter-speed) singing with the technique of duetting, so that everyone had as much listening/thinking time as singing time, and also the opportunity to grasp how the parts fitted together.
These rehearsal techniques draw on an insight that Olivier Messaien used to share with his organ students: there’s no such thing as hard music, there’s just music that you haven’t yet got the required skills under control yet. (And to demonstrate the point, he’d invite them to consider that the music you can currently manage just fine would have looked ‘too hard’ a couple of years previously.) In Bristol Fashion’s music, there was no single moment that stretched them beyond what they have managed before; the issue is just the frequency of the details that need thinking about and the sheer number of them lined up end to end in a long song.
What was interesting as we worked on these techniques was that the main challenge emerged as maintaining a slow steady tempo. Especially at the bits where that had been a bit of a panic, the instinct was rush through. But as we developed the discipline to keep the pulse steady (with the help of some physical movement and vocal percussion), it became much easier to coordinate the parts to one another, and to open the ears to the musical patterns. The main problem with panicking of course (apart from how it feels!) is that it gets in the way of listening out for the cues that are going to help you.
We had quite a laugh over the notion that thing we had to work on most with an up-tempo song was singing slowly – but it was also clear that the issue is not just about speed, but also control. And in many ways this process is an extension to the ideas we explored last summer about the limitations of the run-through as a rehearsal tool.
We had one period of about 40 minutes where the work was really quite tough – but ultimately rewarded us with the satisfaction of significant success. And it occured to me that the reason I pushed through rather than changing tactics when it became clear it was going to be tough was the history I shared with the chorus of introducing things at coaching sessions that they have gone on to master in their own time. Their development over the last two years gave me the confidence that it was worth pursuing a challenge; once they get a taste of success at a new skill, they have the desire to make it their own.