Rhythmically Fascinating Once Again
I was back in the Bristol area for the weekend to work with Fascinating Rhythm chorus. Since I last coached them they had had a very successful contest experience, scoring an average of 71.8 at LABBS Prelims in April,* a significant jump in their scores since the previous November. One of the questions that we faced for the weekend was to what extent was a case of out-performing themselves as a fluke and to what extent it represented a leap in standard that was capable of consolidation.
I realised overnight on Saturday that I had been pushing the chorus considerably harder than I had on my last visit, and reflected that it was probably a subliminal response to their new higher scores, and in two dimensions. On one hand, I was responding to assumptions I had about the working methods and levels of discipline and stamina it takes to get to a level that scores in the 70s, so was going in to work at that level of intensity. On the other, I was expecting a certain standard of performance, and anytime I didn’t get it, I worked at getting the quality up to that suggested by their recent success.
This resonated interestingly with my recent posts about the relationship between contest, self-identity and inertia of standards. There are real self-fulfilling prophesies going on in communal definitions of quality, it seems. Having said that, they were certainly capable of stepping up to the mark I found myself setting for them (even if it took some pushing to inveigle them into doing so). So there’s clearly a solid foundation of skill there – the challenge for them will be to continue to build those expectations into their own self-image.
My visit had been booked for some time, but by chance ended up coming two days after a coaching session with Cindy Hansen, who is over in the UK to coach the Great Western Chorus, and is working with other groups in the area while she is here. The chorus’s initial response to this timing was that it was unfortunate, but in the event we turned it to good effect.
The worry was that having to focus on the new choreography Cindy had done with them would be a distraction from the musical and vocal work I was there to do. But in fact, all these factors work together. Not only is Cindy a very musical and voice-friendly choreographer, but it was invaluable for me to have a clear sense of the overall performance vision as a basis to address musical and vocal issues. And if nothing else, it was useful for the chorus to have a full two days to embed the moves in the memory just after being taught them, rather than a whole week to forget them!
So we ended spending a lot time exploring the relationship between the physical and the musical dimensions of performance. Most of the time, the question was not one of what people were doing, but how they were doing it: we found ourselves using the sound quality or expressive feel as the signal that told us when the move was being executed well.
For example, moves that involved the hands were sometimes improving the sound, and sometimes undermining it. When there was more than one way of executing the gesture, we experimented with the different possibilities to identify which produced the best sound - and in the process demonstrated that sticky-out elbows or too high a centre of gravity make a shallower tone when singers do it as well as when directors do.
The bit of analysis about which I felt the most pleased was a step-turn move to either side in a stomp tempo. On the face of it, the move should have worked well, but it was tending to be both a bit too fast and to lose a little musical energy at the crucial point of the 2nd and 4th beats – just where you really needed to feel the focal point of the rhythm. I suggested as an experiment to follow through the turn with a bit of a pelvic thrust, which sounded absurd but was actually not very visibly evident in the context of the move as a whole.
But what a difference it made! It meant the singers were doing something positive at the rhythmically crucial moments in the bar, and so collected the energy just where it needed to be. It also kept the bodies engaged with the sound so there was an increase rather than slackening of vocal support through the phrase. And the extra something to do at the apex of the move stopped people moving back too early, so kept the tempo under control. Three practical results for the price of one – and a metaphorical undertow to resonate with the expressive world of the song to boot.
There is a myth that when you put the moves on, the singing always goes to pot. There is something in this from a purely sequential point of view. Add a new task and it will distract attention from what you were doing before of course. But as you go through the rehearsal process, the gestural world of choreography can and should start to act as both a physical mnemonic for the music’s expressive purpose and a means to support and help the voice. Yes, it takes more breath to both move and sing, but on the bright side it gives you a built-in means to keep the whole body engaged with the voice.
*LABBS uses the Barbershop Harmony Society’s contest and judging system, and the degree of comparability between its operation in different parts of the world is surprisingly precise. This means that for those familiar with the system, to talk of a ‘71.8’ performance gives a far more vivid impression of its quality than might think from just a number. For those not familiar with the system, 71.8 says confident, secure and entertaining, but with the technique showing somewhat; flaws are perceptible but forgivable in the context of the whole. Or, ‘pretty darn good’ for short.