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A Rhythm that Fascinates

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fascinatingrhyI spent last weekend with Fascinating Rhythm near Bristol for their chorus retreat. Their director, Jo Dean, has been with them two years, and they are at that productive point where they have settled into a secure working relationship, but not into a rut. Indeed, one of the minor themes of the weekend was helping Jo feel safe to keep a lighter grip on the reins now that she is getting a more immediate and nuanced response from the singers – several gestures that were needed when the chorus was first learning to read her can now be reduced and/or dropped entirely.

One major theme that emerged was that many aspects of the way you deliver a performance are contingent rather that fully definable in advance. If one part leads into a phrase, the other parts need to respond to the vocal tone they use that particular occasion, for instance. Likewise, the length of a grand pause depends on the energy and manner of release of the sound that precedes it. Come back in too soon and the audience won’t be ready for you; leave it too long and their attention will wander; gauge it right and they will meet you at the start of the next phrase.

Another major theme was an appreciation of the ‘moments’ in an arrangement. Long notes are there to give you a chance to show off; embellishments give particular parts opportunities for comment or expression not available to everyone. Most people had a sense of where their moments were, and how they could enjoy them. But it made so much difference when people started paying real attention to each other’s moments. It’s nice to have your own toys, but it’s even more fun to play nicely together and share.

We used three particular images to manage the balance in these places, in addition to the simple expedient of widening the focus of attention. The first was to consider the degree of opacity in the sound. A homophonic pillar chord might want to be sung as a solid colour, but when two parts were holding, and two adding a detail over the top, the holding parts needed a more translucent sound to let the detail through. The second image recast this in the more specifically musical terms of orchestration. An oboe or a trombone can be heard through a held chord on the strings more easily than through a chord held by brass. The third image was asking people to ‘listen louder’ if the featured part wasn’t coming through.

This last image is one I use quite a lot, and is part of my general campaign to avoid telling people to sing quietly or to ‘back off’, since I find this encourages people to sing less positively. I have been developing a vocabulary of expression to substitute for words like ‘loud’ and ‘soft’ for some time, depending on the repertoire I’ve been working with: intimate, conspiratorial, introspective versus joyful, triumphant, devil-may-care. But the discussion with singers this weekend finally helped me actually articulate the point of this vocabulary.

The reason we like to have a variety of dynamics in a musical performance is because it enhances the expressive impact. The change in volume level is there to create an effect that evokes an emotional response, not merely to change the strength of the sound signal. So, it is a more direct route to an effective performance if we talk in terms of the expressive purpose of the music rather than the techniques we might use to make it happen.

That is, if we want a passge to sound intimate, it makes more sense to ask people to sing something intimately than to ask them to sing quietly in the hope that the result would be to sound intimate. If we just ask them to sing quietly, we might get the result of timidity, or secrecy, or unhappiness – all of which might be appropriate for some quiet passages, but not this one. To talk in terms of volume level is too generic to achieve a particular expression, and is a secondary effect rather than primary cause – or a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Of course, you do sometimes need to talk about techniques. We had one moment where a single sustained chord made the transition between two expressive states, and it needed to develop in both intensity and colour to generate a real need for the chord that followed. It was clear after a couple of tries that the singers had a real sense of the emotional journey to be traveled, but weren’t finding it easy to reflect it vocally. At that point we worked on moving the vocal resonance forward (using a technique they’d used in their warm-up) and brightening the vowel, and suddenly they could create the effect they were after. But if we’d just talked about resonance and vowel shape without the emotional journey for context, the effect we’d have produced would have been merely a change of sound, not a change of meaning.

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