Blonde Ambition

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Thanks to the quartet for sending a pic since I forgot to take one!Thanks to the quartet for sending a pic since I forgot to take one!I spent a chunk of the May Day bank holiday with Blonde Ambition quartet. When they first booked the coaching session, it was with the intention of preparing for LABBS prelims in June, but due to an administrative mishap, they will not now be competing this year. The bright side of this is that we could do all kinds of deep work on building technique and working methods that you would never undertake a few weeks ahead of a big performance.

There were two main areas we addressed. First, the intake of breath. Their general approach to breath management was pretty good – they were engaging their support well to produce a nicely resonant and focused sound – but the moment of inhalation was inserting a couple of obstacles into the process. One was a tendency to lift the top of the chest, which introduced some tension and stopped the breath sitting as deeply as it could. The other was a tendency to lift the chin slightly as a result of a slight contraction of the muscles in the back of the neck, which prevented a truly silent breath. (Alexander Technique practitioners would know this as ‘pulling down’.)

It is much easier to replace a habitual action than remove it, so we focused on lifting the crown to keep the neck long, and widening the back to keep the chest stable. We didn’t have the quartet sing while balancing books on their heads as a practice gadget, but we discussed the possibility. To keep the back wide, we used the metaphor of breathing through the kidneys. Given that there is something of a trend in the barbershop world at the moment for discussing singing technique in bio-mechanical terms, I rather enjoy how effective anatomically-unlikely metaphors can be.

Getting these small kinks out of the process rewarded us with not only a much quieter breath, but also an even richer tone. It also set us up for using breaths much more artistically in the narrative of the song once we moved into repertoire.

The second main area we worked on was a mode of listening I refer to as the ‘virtual ear’. Looking back through my blog, I see that I have mentioned this repeatedly in the context of coaching reports, but never actually dedicated a post to it. I should probably do one so I can refer back to it in future, since this is a technique for building quartet sound that just keeps giving.

We spent quite a while with very simple exercises on a variety of vowels establishing the technique. One of the things I love about teaching this is that it is abundantly audible when people have got the hang of it: they find the lock between voices reliably at the start of the note, and keep the overtones spinning continuously above them. A quartet who are all producing their voices well will produce lock and ring a good deal of the time anyway (as Blonde Ambition were already), but it only happens consistently when people are purposefully listening out for it.

Once you have practised this technique in the structured musical contexts of exercises, you can apply it in the more complex contexts of real music. Holding each individual chord in a passage with your ears on the sound of the whole gives that part of your brain that loves harmony time to understand each sonority in turn. Again, it is clearly audible when people have stopped focusing just on their own note and are listening to the chord as a whole. All kinds of minute adjustments to tone, tuning, balance happen intuitively and the beauty of the composite sound shines forth.

Like duetting (another exercise all about the ears we spent some time with), this is an activity that not only cleans up the detail of the section you are working on, but also builds skill that pays off in everything else you sing. Both are rehearsal activities that don’t make you choose between short-term goals (we need to polish this music for imminent performance) and long-term goals (we need to improve our ensemble sound and our collective insight into the music and each other).

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