Obsessive Coaching Session

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Friday night saw a visit from Obsession! quartet from Bristol for a coaching session on developing their unit sound. The have the interesting challenge of combining two English-speaking singers with two whose first language is Spanish. This on the face of it presents all kinds of technical obstacles (vowel-matching, and the like) and psychological obstacles (anxiety about ‘getting it right’ in your second language).

We had a productive evening cutting through all that by considering not how the Spanish speakers could get to sound more like the first-language English speakers, but instead how all four of them could sound more like the accent the quartet needed to sing in. For no four people produce their voices exactly alike, and even those who have a strong agreement on regional rendition of particular vowels, sung English usually aims to move away from regional specificities to a national or international genre norm.

So, everybody had work to do on shaping and placement; and possibly more importantly, everyone had work to do on developing the aural skills to note the distinctions you need to make to effect those changes. The goal was, for me, twofold: both to work on their unit sound there and then, and send them away with a collection of methods and rehearsal techniques they can use to continue the work.

The fundamental building-block we used was to work on vowel placement. Spoken English sees this wander about all over the place, with many vowels, especially more neutral ones and/or those on short, connective words, swallowed. Sung English wants a placement that is both more forward and more consistent.

(Note: I am talking particularly about English English here; US English typically uses a much more forward placement. Comparing American and British writers on this subject is always rather entertaining. Previous observations about the musical consequences of this difference can be found here.)

So, we started with an exercise that takes a vowel, contrasts a wide, shallow placement with a tall and forward placement, and then runs it through a short scale to focus on keeping the resonance consistent as pitch moves. This exercise uses the Inner Game principle of Will: it is easier to get control of a technique if you explore the extremes of what you don’t want as well as what you do.

We applied this exercise to every vowel in the first couple of phrases of a song - thus including all the odd, neutral vowels of English as well as the Italianate vowels we generally use for technical work. We then strung them together by singing the melody without any consonants. It turned out that keeping the placement consistent at the same time as moving in pitch was quite tricky, so we pedalled back to singing all the vowels in the correct rhythm on a unison monotone as preparation.

From here we worked out to singing the phrase in four parts just to the vowels, and finally to putting the consonants back in. The whole cycle took maybe 15 minutes for the first phrase, then another 10 for the second. This is either a long time if you look at it from the perspective of how much music you get through in a session, or a very short time if you consider what a difference they made to their sound in the process.

Like duetting - another technique we spent some time with - this is a rehearsal method that has a dual function. On one hand, it works directly on repertoire; on the other, it develops skills. So in rehearsal, you would typically want to take a different passage for detailed attention each time, and whilst that particular bit would improve significantly, everything else you sing would also improve somewhat. After three or four rehearsals, the starting level of your chosen passage for detailed work will be considerably better than that of the first passage you worked on.

One of the key points about this work on placement was intensity. At each stage of the exercise, my instruction more often than not was ‘...and again’. It typically took three iterations to go from a partially successful attempt to a secure and controlled rendition. All that was needed to effect this transition was repetition - indeed extra instruction was not only unnecessary but would actually dilute the effectiveness.

It is very easy for quartets to spend a lot of time discussing things that need fixing. But if you can hear what needs doing, it is generally more effective simply to sing it a few times with the intention of making the change you are after and see if that does the trick. If it doesn’t, of course, then verbal analysis becomes useful. But in the first instance, the way to acquire skills is to exercise them repeatedly, paying close attention to how you are getting on.

Or, as we put it in our summary of rehearsal strategies at the end of the session, you need to apply these techniques obsessively. For some reason, this particular quartet identified readily with this principle...

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