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Coaching on Cloud9

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Cloud9The final adventure of my trip to the Netherlands was to go and work with Cloud9 quartet. They had already had a good deal of coaching over the education weekend (rather more than they had anticipated when we set up our session), so we went into the main song they wanted to work on having had it already significantly deconstructed over the previous two days.

We agreed up front that we would therefore work with the understanding that if there was anything that so in flux to be confusing, we had the choice of using me to facilitate decisions or just parking that question for them to think about when they’d had a bit more time to process their recent experiences.

In the event, though, they echoed remarks from other delegates that the approaches of the different coaches at the weekend were pleasantly compatible, allowing people to build their knowledge as they moved between us, rather than having to negotiate conflicting worldviews. If you want to compliment anyone on this, it would be less the coaches than the Holland Harmony Education Committee who put the team together.

After a weekend in which sessions typically covered a large quantity of information, it was refreshing to dig into musical detail and work in depth. We spent a good hour and a half of our two-hour session on a single strophe of 24 bars. But the work we did with it set them up to make decisions for the rest of the song.

The song is a strongly characterised one, with its primary strength in the lyric. So, in a fit of irony, the first thing we did was to strip the lyrics out and bubble it in order focus on melodic flow and the rhythmic framework. One of the difficulties they had was that the focus on lyric had led them to become somewhat syllabic, and bubbling became medium both to reassert melodic connection at a vocal level, and to make it more clearly audible where they were placing their main pulses.

Rhythm lives in the body, and one way to help people find and sustain a rhythmic feel is to approach it through the character who is singing the song. It’s rather like the way an actor would figure out the kind of walk and voice a character would need from the script, and then approach all the detail of the script through the filter of those bodily habits. It is much easier to stay in character once you have found the way of being it needs.

Characterisation also helps the voice. There is a barbershop mannerism of dipping the knees and dropping the torso slightly at breath points. There may be times when this is helpful, for either expressive or vocal purposes, but mostly people do it as a matter of habit, and it all too often compromises the vocal set-up and/or the narrative flow.

Just telling people not to do this is the hard way to deal with it. As soon as they need to think about something else, habit returns. But if you consider that the character would not give away their power at that point in the narrative, it becomes integrated into the holistic concept of who this person is, and what they are aiming to do within the song, you don’t have to remember maintain posture as a separate ‘to-do’, it becomes a natural consequence of the overall expressive purpose.

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