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Aurora Revisited

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We forgot to take a selfie so Helen spliced us together afterwards...We forgot to take a selfie so Helen spliced us together afterwards...Last Sunday afternoon brought Aurora quartet back for more coaching, to follow up the session we had back in March. They had clearly been working diligently since last time there were here, and it was most cheering to be able to tell them how readily apparent the improvement was to someone who hadn’t heard them in the interim.

Of course one always intends for rehearsals to be making things better, but when you are in the thick of it you can’t always tell whether your incremental changes are adding up. So it's useful to hear from someone who only hears you intermittently.

They came in with a helpfully specific list of things they wanted help with - pacing the intro to one song, trouble-shooting some unusual chords in another – which, almost more than the greater consistency of sound, signalled that they are now taking more control over their development.

My observation is that when people arrive articulating clear needs, the issues you sort out stay more securely sorted out once you put them back into musical context. This is probably because they have already done the unfreezing phase of the change process for you in articulating their dissatisfaction with the status quo.

We also revisited our work on phrase boundaries from last time. The physical act of breathing contained less tension than it had done, and the musical flow between phrases was commensurately more fluent, but there was still a sense that the breaths interrupted the narrative rather than facilitating it. This showed both in the eyes, where the light flickered back into technical rather than story-telling mode, and in the sound, where the tone in the phrase-end word sounds lost a little clarity and integrity.

Sometimes you can do half your work by announcing that you’re going to work on something. Simply by focusing attention on the phrase ends, the quartet brought a good deal more elegance and control to them. If your ear asks, your voice will supply.

Some of the words provided useful material to work with. Turning a diphthong or a postvocalic r gives the brain something to latch onto to effect the transition from sound to not sound artistically. Other times it is simply a matter of getting interested in the end of a word, in a way you don’t need to in speech.

To keep the eyes engaged, we brought the imagined interlocutor into the room. Their ballad is a love song with some complexity of emotion; the lyrics don’t tell you what the back-story is, but they signal that it is a love that persists despite obstacles. The conversation the song enacts is not an easy one; the stakes feel quite high. It is the kind of conversation in which your eyes would be very focused on your beloved, checking how they are responding to the things you say, making sure you keep your mutual understanding intact.

The end of a phrase in this context is not about getting air into the singing body. It’s where you are most attentive to the effect of your words on the person whose validation you need. Getting performers interested in the imagined impact of what they have just uttered as the motivation for what they are going to sing next gives them a way to integrate sound and silence into a single narrative. And they completely forget to think about breathing, which their bodies just get on with smoothly and naturally.

This approach also helped them handle the two places where the music was asking for longer silent pauses than a simple breath point. They were feeling the musical shape, but had a slight tendency to come back in a bit too early anyway. Leaving silence to ring can leave you feeling very vulnerable if you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing with that silence.

But bringing your addressee into the fictional space of the song helps make sense of this. The silence no longer leaves you exposed to the scrutiny of the audience; it becomes active, purposeful, and invested with intent. It makes you realise that, in real life, when you are interacting with your beloved, it’s in the moments between that all the really important communication goes on.

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