Bristol Fashion: Breath, Resonance, and the Edge of Ability
I spent last Sunday back with my friends in Bristol Fashion, who continue to go from strength to strength. I have been working with them once or twice a year now since 2009 and it is very noticeable that each time I return the skills we worked on during previous visits are always well enough embedded to build upon for the next set of developments.
For example, a couple of years ago, it was a significant challenge for the singers to sustain a line by bubbling. This time, we could take that skill for granted and build on it using a combination of ideas I picked up from Alison Thompson at the LABBS Education Day last week and the Inner Game principle of Will.
Alison's idea was the difference between a 'thin' bubble and a 'resonant' bubble. Both are good for airflow and forward placement, but the latter involves lengthening the neck opening the space at the back of the pharynx to increase the richness of sound. We introduced the principle of Will by alternating between the two types of bubble as the chorus sang through a passage. Hence, it was not a matter of trying to do the 'correct' one, but deliberately toggling between two different states. This is a great way of developing conscious control over technique without the complication of the self-imposed emotional pressure to avoid error.
It's also worth mentioning how it was decided to toggle between those two states, as it's a technique I developed with Magenta as part of my campaign to devolve control, and have found it increasingly useful in my coaching of late. Basically, the timing is handed over to the singers in the form of a symbolic 'toggle-switch', made out of anything we have to hand (in this case a music folder), and placed on the floor in front of the chorus. This can be operated, in principle, by any of the singers, although with a large group like Bristol Fashion I'll usually hand it over just to the front row. Again, this removes some of the burden of obedience, making more room to learn by playing.
It was interesting to see how, after doing this exercise, the singers had access to this world of enhanced resonance for the rest of the day. It was by no means automated - with no reminder to use it, you wouldn't hear it - but it had been placed clearly into the realms of conscious competence in which it was possible to opt to engage the skill as a deliberate choice.
Another theme that emerged during the day was how growth happens when we are working at the edge of our skills. An exercise that we can nearly, but not quite manage, is exactly what we should be working on - once we can do it, we need something else to stretch us. One context was with the bubbling, when people who find it hard to sustain it continuously pinch their cheeks to help. This can get you started, but if you always do it, you'll never get any better at managing without.
Another context was in singing right through phrases without sneaking in extra breaths. People get the idea that they 'need' the top-ups when they're first learning a piece and don't manage a phrase in their early attempts. But skills improve, and familiarity makes songs easier - but the habits of the sneak-breaths and self-image of 'needing' them persist. Having the discipline to adhere only to the scheduled breaths is the only way to develop the control to be able to do so. It's tempting to think 'I'll stop taking that breath when I can do the whole phrase', but if you always take the breath, you'll never develop the mental and technical stamina to achieve the phrase without it.
For this kind of stretching, challenging approach to be possible, of course, people need permission to get things wrong in rehearsal. It became a matter to celebrate when we heard people completely running out of air at the end of a phrase, because this meant they had pushed themselves to take no unscheduled breaths. (It didn't happen very often, indeed, and even when it did, you could hear that people were nearly there.)
My friends with children tell me that a secret of good parenting is to congratulate the valiant attempts more assiduously than successful outcomes. I suspect the same may be true of nurturing choral singers.