Back to (Old) School

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One of the highlights of the BABS Convention in Llandudno last weekend was the masterclass by International bronze quartet medallists, Old School. This is a quartet made up of singers who have been highly successful in previous quartets - I lose count of how many previous medals they have collected between them over the last twenty years. Their current mission is not merely to be successful in contest, however, but to be successful in contest with really traditional barbershop songs and arrangements. And it would be hard to find four voices better suited to remind the world of the sheer sonic pleasure available from this kind of purist approach.

There were two particular things from the masterclass that I put by for later mulling-over:

‘The Look of the Sound’

A recurrent theme in the class was their integrated approach to rehearsal whereby they never separated technical rehearsal from performance mode. They spend a lot of time in duets and trios coaching each other on the detail - matching vocal quality, balancing chords, that kind of thing – but they make a point of never separating the notes they sing from the facial expressions and bodily demeanour with which they will perform them.

They talked about the relationship between visual and vocal performance in terms of the psychology of perception. If someone sees a particular mouth shape, experience will lead them to expect a certain quality to the vowel, so looking like you want to sound is a way to help your audience hear you in the way you want to be heard. I guess this works on the same principle as putting your glasses on so that you can hear better (even on the phone).

But of course, changing your bodily disposition does also change how the voice sounds, so at a purely vocal level, it makes sense to rehearse the way you are going to perform, particularly if the focus of your rehearsal is sculpting and honing the sound of the ensemble. There’s no point spending hours developing precise sonic relationships between voices if your next stage is to change your facial expression in the name of performance – you’ll drive a coach and horses through the balance and blend you’ve so carefully crafted!

This all resonated nicely with the thoughts I was having about the quartet semi-finals from the previous evening of course. And both had me thinking about Alexander Technique and the way it conceives human action in terms of psycho-physical unity.

Gesture and Voice

This is something I was just thinking about in terms of directing gesture the other week, and the gestural world of Old School gave me further food for thought.

The main gesture to stand out was the one they used when they talked about vowels: about singing the vowels tall, supported by a column of air (and their preference for the vocabulary of height over that of brightness/darkness). The first thing to note was that it was a gesture they all shared – the imagistic conception of their verbal metaphor was the same between all of them. And it was a gesture they used a lot when explaining the idea, and also when demonstrating what they meant by it vocally. Then just occasionally you’d see it emerge as they rehearsed a passage together – so you could see when they were thinking about that aspect of their technique.

But the gesture itself interested me: it involved long fingers and wrist, with no kinks in the line from elbow to fingertip. And it traced a trajectory from a diagonal orientation to more vertical. This of course traced the idea of tallness expressed in their verbal metaphor, but it also had the effect of bringing their elbows in so that they lay where they would do if the arm were suspended from the shoulder and fingertips with no muscular intervention to counteract the effects of gravity.

This is a quality I have also observed in the elbows of good choral directors, and I’ve known for some time that choirs directed by conductors with sticky-out elbows make a shallower, less resonant sound than those whose arms are more integrated. Watching Old School made me realise that directors with raised elbows also tend to break the line of the wrist. So now I’m wondering what effect each of those two elements has – the line of the elbow and the angle of the wrist. More close observation needed, I think.

But in any case, it’s probably no bad thing for directors to learn from the gestural worlds of very successful singers in their chosen genre – as you can pick up not only the imaginative shapes through which they conceptualise what they do, but also know that the gestures facilitate effective use of the vocal mechanism.

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