Start as you mean to go on
This post is a theme that emerged during my visit to Bristol Fashion last week, but which wanted enough thinking about to deserve a post of its own. It is, on the face of it, a rather obvious point: that if a chorus starts a phrase well, it continues well, whereas a hesitant or ragged or inattentive start leads to a lower level of performance throughout the phrase. This resonates with my observations of how one of the ways Peter Kennedy maintains performance standards at Green Street Blues is by not letting them continue after a substandard start. But it also brings out some extra dimensions that you can only spot when you can compare the continuations from both clean and rocky starts.
Sometimes an uncertain start is a signal that people haven’t quite found the start point in their heads. Being able to pick up anywhere in a piece is a skill that it is important to develop, and by definition an ensemble’s members will be at different stages of development at it. But that’s only the case on the first time from any one pick-up point. After that, it’s usually due to breathing late: in fact I found after working with Bristol Fashion for a while that I could predict what the opening of the phrase was going to sound like by watching the chorus breathe. A measured breath starting early produced a controlled and well-characterised start to the phrase, whilst a hurried breath at the last minute produced a start that was less well coordinated and less resonant tone.
A lot of this is about the set-up of the voice, of course. Snatched breaths tend to be shallower and encourage vocal tension, neither of which is helpful to choral tone. But I think it’s also about the singers’ relationship with the music, and their self-identities as performers. A key indicator of an ensemble’s skill level is who is in control: are the performers in control of the song, or is the song in control of the performers? Are the singers delivering the song from a sense of ownership, or are they just kind of singing along with their mental image of it?
And there was this sort of difference in level between the phrases that Bristol Fashion sang after the two kinds of start. When they prepared well, not only was the start clean and positive, and the sound well supported, but the whole phrase had a sense of musical purpose and style and expression wholly different from the times they muddled in over the first couple of notes.
Now, Bristol Fashion is a chorus that has been developing quite quickly over the past year or so, and a key issue for them as they consolidate these gains is stepping into the identity of performers who are in control of what they do. So, when they breathe early, that is not just a good vocal habit, but part of a mental habit of being prepared and on top of things. When they breathe late, they are slipping back into their past habits of just letting the music happen to them because they didn’t have all the skills they needed to take charge of it.
I think there is also an interesting feedback loop happening here in real time. Self-identity is both a performative quality (you maintain it by perceptible behaviours), and a reflexive one (you build up a personal narrative that tells the story of who you are and how you came to be like that). So, when the chorus hears themselves start a phrase in an ordinary way, they perceive themselves to be an ordinary chorus, and perform the rest of the phrase in a way consistent with that identity. When they hear an authoritative and interesting phrase opening, they likewise find themselves living up to the impression of themselves they have just presented.
On reflection, then, I find I have a clearer answer to my question about whether/when it is reasonable to let singers continue after a dodgy start. If the hesitation comes from the cognitive challenge of finding where you are in the music when starting at a mid-point, then I think giving people one chance to sing it while they get their heads in the right place is probably helpful. Once people have found where they are with this first sing-through, though, there is no point in practising being mentally slightly behind the event.
Having said that, it is a reasonably violent thing to keep stopping people just as they start to sing – if you keep cutting people off as they’ve hardly got going, they clam up and the voices stop flowing. So the key here is really in the director’s hands, to get people ready to sing both vocally and mentally before they even start. And it was interesting to see that, in the newer repertoire that Bristol Fashion had learned since their recent big lift in skill level, that was exactly what was happening.