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Workshopping with Just Voices

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Warm-up action shot!Warm-up action shot!

I spent the weekend down in the second most eastward point of the UK, where Just Voices had convened to hold a weekend’s retreat in Broadstairs. We structured it as two one-day workshops on contrasting themes, but addressing a common core of pieces from their repertoire.

Saturday saw us focusing on the singers as musicians, with a bespoke workshop on Aural Skills for Choral Groups, while Sunday took our attention back out onto the audience with the theme Perform with Panache. We had slightly less time at our disposal on Sunday, though, so we compensated for that by taking the opportunity of the Saturday evening together to prime some ideas to be working on overnight.

Our aural adventures started with the most cognitively intensive work, developing the inner ear. Audiation often takes a good deal more concentration and mental engagement than singing, and draws attention to how much we often rely on kinaesthetic cues to guide us through our musicking. But it is a more secure guide, as it doesn’t get knocked off course by random physical circumstances such as muscular tension or slight changes in posture. When the voices in your head are leading the way, the sound is frequently cleaner and more accurate than when it is being led primarily by muscle memory.

During the afternoon we moved on to developing the responsive ear, with perceptual work that gave close attention to the actual sounds in the room. One extended exercise explored the expressive qualities of different harmonies through the metaphor of flavour. If this chord were a foodstuff, what would it taste of? These conversations are invariably interesting – whether people respond with surprisingly similar answers or surprisingly different ones.

The discussions opened up the variety of complex factors people were responding to. Harmonic quality is multidimensional even in the abstract, but in the context of a song will also be inflected by the way that vocal colours are influenced by melodic and lyrical narrative. But within that, the inherent qualities of the chords give shape and life; music theory geeks will be pleased to know how well strength of flavour seems to correlate with harmonic charge.

Sunday’s performance focus started off looking at the big picture, considering expressive range across the whole collection of repertoire for the weekend. Mapping the physical qualities implicit in the songs across the dimensions of still-active and individual-unified helped identify the contrasts between the different communicative worlds and thus help them offer a more varied artistic experience to their audiences.

This big picture then provided the framework in which to consider expressive detail. We discussed several of the songs in terms of setting and character: what clues do the music and lyrics give us about where and when this song’s story is happening? As with the harmonic negotiations of the Saturday, it was the reasons people were drawing conclusions as much as the conclusions themselves that were illuminating.

This kind of interpretive work is sometimes labelled subjective, due to the range of individual responses that emerge. But it’s never purely subjective – people can identify what it is they are responding to, and there are commonalities between these responses far more often than not. All music has a range of expressive possibilities available, but it’s never an infinite range. By negotiating between the different responses, everyone’s insight deepens.

A common thread over both days was how the activities encouraged singers to take responsibility for whole musical texture, not just their own line. Your particular note in a chord may colour your perception of that chord’s meaning, but you are still jointly responsible with everyone else for making the whole meaningful. And, whether or not your part is delivering the lyric at any point in a song, you still need to participate in telling its story.

Something that Just Voices’ director Cathy remarked on at the end of Sunday was the way that, whilst we had done virtually no orthodox coaching/rehearsing of musical detail, our activities had nonetheless cleaned up a lot of details that had previously been out of focus. I had likewise noticed that we had said virtually nothing about the use of the voice for two days, and yet people were singing with increasing freedom and resonance the more they connected with their ears and/or their imaginations.

This is something that I discover and rediscover regularly. Work on voice technique is helpful and valuable and aids people’s control over what they do. But also, trusting the technique they already have and engaging their intuition allows them to shed the tensions of self-consciousness and over-control and let their humanity in on the act.

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