I spent last Saturday morning at a workshop by the Spooky Men’s Chorale entitled ‘Sing Like a Bloke’. It was hosted by Sounds Allowed, and had been preceded the night before by a concert (which I’d missed through trying to book tickets after it had already sold out). Birmingham was the first stop in a tour of the UK, which continues right through into September.
As it turned out, the gender implications of the workshop’s title didn’t play a major part. It was more a case of learning to sing in the style that this particular set of people, who happen to be blokes, do. This style draws heavily on the vocal production of the Georgian choral tradition; indeed apparently they referred to themselves as ‘post-Georgian’ in the concert, which opened up all kinds of interesting conversations about being post-a place. I think I may take to being post-English on the same principle.
Anyway, the workshop involved a physically active warm-up, some early work teaching the vocal style, and an hour or learning a 3-part Georgian song, with the whole thing topped off by a short performance from the chorale.
They taught the vocal style in broadly Estill-type terms (sob, belt, constriction and false folds were all words that made an appearance), and with methods that focused a lot on exploring the behaviour of the larynx.
They started with sob, where the larynx drops and widens, then moved onto belt, which they taught by starting with a shout quality then sustaining it. They then added the widening of the larynx from sob to the raised larynx of shouting in order to smooth the sound and protect the vocal folds from over-work. They also talked a lot about the importance of physical engagement to stop you hurting the voice in this mode: how you lose your voice trying to hold a conversation in a noisy a pub, but you don’t during childbirth, and the difference being your level of physical involvement.
I have two observations about what happened when we transferred this vocal set-up into learning the song. On one hand, I was impressed by how successfully they had got a room full of 50 miscellaneous people to produce very bright, striking vocal sounds in a remarkably uniform fashion in such a short space of time. On the other, for all the talk of the importance of physical engagement, they didn’t enforce this during the note-learning phase, and having a room full of people continuing to belt while they slouched their way through half an hour or so of rote-learning didn’t do the voices any good at all.
Things got better once the music was digested. We were invited into a more physically-active way of being, and a visualisation exercise towards the end did a marvellous job integrating body, voice and sense of identity into a coherent and efficiently-operating unit. But I could feel the strain of that previous half hour as I went home, and found myself glad that it was only a 2-hour workshop.
This is a pity, because I’d otherwise be very happy to spend more time with this bunch of people – both from a musical and a personal perspective. They are relaxed and friendly as both performers and workshop leaders, and have that knack of turning a group of random people into instant friends. And it’s clear they have assimilated voice-protecting levels of support into their own singing, or they would never be able to contemplate the tour schedule they currently taking on.
So, the advice to those who are thinking of going to events on the rest of the tour is:
- Book early
- If the seats aren’t numbered, get to the concert early so you get a seat near enough the front to get the benefit of the entertainment in their facial expressions
- During workshops, try and keep your vocal support engaged even if everyone around you isn’t. (Easier said than done of course, but your efforts will help them preserve their voices as much as their lack of support puts strain on yours)