Return to the Spires
Last week I found myself back with my friends at Harmony InSpires in Oxfordshire. I last coached them back in September, and it was encouraging to hear how their sound had improved in accuracy and clarity in the intervening months. We found some common themes with my last visit as well, though – it’s a rare choral group that can stop thinking about breath support and legato in just five short months!
The thing that has stayed with me most from this session, however, was nothing to do with the specifics of technique and rehearsal method we went through, but was about the chorus’s relationship with the sounds they are producing.
Like every other choir in the universe made up of expressive but also fallible human beings, they would sometimes produce a sound that was wonderful, and sometimes produce a sound they didn’t like. And, while they had a healthily celebratory attitude to the good-sounding bits, when they fell short of their aspirations, they looked terribly anxious. Faces fell, heads shook, eyebrows knitted.*
Possibly the most useful thing I said all evening was to point out that they didn’t have to beat themselves up so much. If you can hear that something needs changing in your performance, that’s a good thing. It means that you are listening, and that you are making discriminations between sometimes quite subtle things. Without that awareness of sound quality and ensemble coordination, you have no way to improve. So if you hear a mismatch in vocal quality between sections, or an interval that’s slightly off-true, or a word-sound that is closing down prematurely, that is a golden opportunity to raise the standard of group performance.
Feeling bad about it just gets in the way of enjoying singing. There’s no disgrace in producing an imperfect choral sound; it’s not a moral fault, it’s just something that happens. But if you start apportioning blame and feeling shame, you are just dwelling on the problem rather than pursuing its solution.
If you don’t take the errors personally, but develop instead an enquiring relationship with them, you feel much more empowered to sort them out. A thought-process that goes: ‘that wasn’t very good…oh dear,’ is a dead-end, but on that does ‘that wasn’t very good….what happened?...I think the basses were singing a different vowel from the baritones... shall we try that again and listen out for that?’ is on the track of a productive fix.
A useful way to develop this kind of mind-set is to articulate the changes that need making in terms of what is to be added or changed, rather than what is wrong. So, ‘the basses could be lighter’ and ‘that interval needs to lock sooner’, are better than ‘the basses were too heavy’ or ‘that interval was late to tune.’ Focusing on the solutions is a more direct way to success as well giving everyone a break.
* Or is the past participle in this context ‘knit’? I mean they got frowny, not that they took up handicrafts with their eyebrows, which would be pretty impressive, but distracting when you’re trying to sing.