The weekend took me over to Minden in Germany, to work with a capella ensemble Oriana in advance of their Advent concert on December 2nd. They are preparing a selection of repertoire that is strongly themed in terms of text, but very varied in style and origin - from Renaissance counterpoint to spirituals.
Consequently, one of the primary areas we worked on was mood-set. The group had previously identified the starts of pieces as an area that would benefit attention - like many ensembles they had found that it sometimes took them a bar or two to really get into the flow of a piece. And a programme that propels you into a new musical and emotional world every few minutes is going to make particular demands on this dimension of your performance.
We addressed this first through the idea of place. Whereabouts in time and space does this piece transport you? Who is addressing whom, and why? The answers to these questions are often not clear-cut, but need to be negotiated from between the various mental images each singer has developed, usually intuitively and unconsciously, during the process of learning the piece. The negotiation goes on with reference to details of text's content and origin, to the music's stylistic affiliations, and to the background information people have researched about the piece.
What matters about the answer is not that it is right, but that it is plausible and convincing to the singers. It also needs to be vivid, concrete, and specific to the piece. Once you find yourself on a rocky mountainside for one item in a programme, you want to locate other pieces elsewhere so as to avoid becoming generic in your approach.
Having a clear mental image of where and when a piece takes place did some wonderful things to the performance. There was a real sense of expressive purpose in the way the ensemble drew breath to start, and of unanimity of purpose, indeed. In their own parlance, it 'gelled'; Merleau-Ponty would have said they were inhabiting the same house of being.
The next thing we added was an imaginary audience member at the back of the hall for them to sing to. If an ensemble's members sing out to their audience without a particular focal point, it can make the group as a whole look a little cross-eyed. If you have a part that is, musically, operating somewhat independently of the others, then the kind of soloistic gaze behaviour that encompasses the whole room works fine, but in moments when you are merged into the composite persona of the whole, then using the focal point removes distractions for the audience.
The detail in this exercise that made the magical difference was to look at the imaginary friend so as to see if they were ready to join you. This is something we do quite naturally and easily in conversation - the eye contact before you speak serves both to collect attention and check that your interlocutor is okay and ready to go. When performers do this, you get a completely different impact from when they try to communicate by 'broadcasting' an emotional state. Now the audience too is invited into the house of being.
Once we had developed the ideas of location with the three pieces with which they will open the concert, we rehearsed just the very start of each in succession. They would think of the time and place, look to connect with their virtual listener, sing the first couple of lines, then stop and move onto the next one. This develops the skill of imaginative flexibility. Rehearsing in depth takes you to the heart of a particular musical world, but it is the crunching of mental and emotional gears as you perform music in real time that makes starting pieces a challenge.
Hence, the skill you need to practise is not just creating the illusion, but of changing the atmosphere as you move from piece to piece. Rehearsing starts not only gives you much more practice of doing this than running complete pieces does, but it makes the task significantly more challenging. Cognitive skills benefit from practice gadgets as much as physical ones do.
We quite often make a distinction between technical and artistic dimensions of performances, but these kinds of exercises rather undermine that distinction. We were in a world of artistry, in that our goals were all about the communication of imaginative and emotional content. But we were also in a world of technique, in that we were developing ensemble procedures that the singers can apply at will to ensure that they make the magic happen every time.