Back with Brunel
I spent Saturday with my friends at Brunel Harmony in Saltash. They’ve seen a lot of changes since I was with them last year, and will be heading to LABBS Convention in the autumn with a rather smaller chorus than last year and a new director out front. And the changes had meant they were slightly behind themselves in terms of the preparation schedule they might have chosen.
But don’t let any of those circumstances worry you: they are in fine fettle and good voice. There is an impressiveness to the body of sound you can generate with a large chorus, but the clarity a smaller group can produce has its own exciting qualities. And notwithstanding the changes, there is still plenty of continuity of experience, which allowed us to build on last year’s work on breath and characterisation.
Our morning’s work involved lots of intensive diagnostic work identifying what was causing a loss of tonal centre. Maintaining pitch sounds like a single thing to deal with, but in fact it is a symptom that can come arise from many different causes, singly or in combination.
We found ourselves raising awareness of the tonal centre alongside both musical tasks, such as finding where the melodic shape needed refreshing if it wasn’t to sag, and vocal activities, such as bubbling or getting vowels into consistently resonant placements. Interestingly, questions of vowel shape often interacted with questions of song form through the structure of the rhyme schemes.
Tuning is also about psychology. If people are worried it’s not sounding right, they sing more tentatively, with more tension and less support. Which, in turn, doesn’t help the tuning. But, you can’t just tell people to be more confident - by definition, if they’re not feeling secure, telling them they lack something makes them feel worse. What you can do is work on the external symptoms - posture, continuity of breath, resonance - and see people settling into a happier place as they hear the effect of the changes on the quality of sound they produce.
But you do also need to address these emotional needs. People do get anxious if they don’t think it sounds right - it’s because they are conscientious and committed musicians. And sometimes what’s needed is the reassurance that imperfection is part of the process. It’s okay, we can do some work on this to make it better.
In particular, there is a moment when we’re doing this kind of intensive, focused work, when everyone’s brains fall out. Simple tasks like remembering a note just sung suddenly become insuperable. If you’re not expecting it, this can be very disconcerting. So I take great pleasure in celebrating this moment as the sign that we’ve got into that deep, harmonic place where you can unpick old habits and rebuild the singers as more accomplished musicians. Once you’ve been through this phase, you find a lot more stability of both tonal centre and tone quality.
And then, as things get better, you can see the self-belief return. And each success becomes the foundation for the next. Moments that aren’t yet sounding optimal stop being things to worry about and start being opportunities to deploy skills already demonstrated.
We thus found ourselves, during the later part of the day, in that zone that Jim Clancy sees as the key to excellence: nailing those things that you can do, but do not yet do all the time. This kind of work on consistency and self-discipline is often thought of as removing distractions: the metaphor of polishing imagines a process of wiping the smudgy fingermarks off the clear glass of the sound. And of course this an important part of what it achieves - letting the musical beauty shine through unsullied.
But it’s important for the singers as well as for the listener. The more consistently you choose to bring your best self to the party, the more ownership you assert over your skills. And when you know you can do something at will, you feel both relaxed and purposeful. You breathe more deeply and lose extraneous tension. The voice sounds true - in the senses both security and believability - allowing the singer to trust themselves and let their expressiveness show.