Eu4ic Coaching Session
Today I had the pleasure of working with the quartet Eu4ia, who are currently preparing to defend their European championship title in Eindhoven in March. Eu4ia have been together for quite a few years now, having been LABBS national champions in 2001 and then having gone onto represent Sweet Adelines Region 31 at International level several times since. They are experienced performers, well in control of their technique, which makes them a treat to coach, as this meant we could focus our efforts on artistic questions.
One of the things I find fascinating when working with any singers, but particularly those performing at the more sophisticated and assured levels, is how much the sound changes when you change what’s going on in their heads. People are so expressive, and if they’re thinking ‘gotta keep my breath support’, you can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices just as much as if they’re thinking about the emotional content of the song. Indeed, Eu4ia are working at that level where having an interpretive plan could even start to get in the way of their performance, as it risks them thinking about a checklist of pre-determined performance decisions rather than their understanding of the song - which is much more interesting.
There were two specific areas that this general insight played out in that I found particularly interesting to reflect on.
The first was how the richness and nuance of the performance increases in proportion to the concreteness and specificity of the imaginative engagement. So, at the central moment of ‘What’ll I Do’ where the melody soars up to its peak on the word ‘photograph’, we spent some time fleshing out what that photograph looked like. Is it of the lost love by himself, or of them as a couple, is it framed or dog-eared, formally posed or an informal candid camera moment, taken with professional equipment or a cheaply-printed, faded snap from an instamatic? What was the occasion?
It really doesn’t matter what the answers are to these questions, what matters is that the quartet has answers – and that they are constantly refreshing them and bringing them to mind. This was a song they had competed with some time ago, and they were bringing back to their repertoire. They had already made a lot of these decisions, but it was interesting that it wasn’t until they both articulated them anew and refined them that their sound really gained the bloom and immediacy they are capable of.
The second point of interest was the relationship between the breath-points and the phrases. We noticed that the breath-points mid-phrase were much more integrated into the flow of the song than the ones between phrases. That is, when they were breathing at a point where the musical and/or lyrical idea was incomplete, the breath participated in developing the thought. So, we worked on getting the between-phrase breaths working in a similar way, to set up the idea that followed. After a while we just changed our terminology: we stopped talking about breath points and started talking about thought-points. It’s amazing how many minor technical issues (balance, tuning, synchronisation) sort themselves out in a phrase that follows a really sensitively-performed thought-point.
Incidentally, Ed Waesche’s arrangement of ‘What’ll I Do’, beautiful as it is, has always seemed somewhat unbalanced to me: there’s all this wistful, lonely stuff through most of the song, then the tag suddenly goes into this urgent, passionate world. Well, Eu4ia finally made sense of it for me today: they situate the song shortly after the break-up, and hear this final section as coming face-to-face with the beloved – maybe he’s come to pick up his stuff and finish moving out – and the musical shift marks the change from singing to his photo to addressing him directly. The way they sing it, you can hear the moment he walks in the door.