Saturday with Vale Connection
I spent last Saturday working with Vale Connection chorus in Evesham on my arrangement of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’. Some of the singers had attended the education day back in 2009 that it was originally arranged for, but for others it was new territory. It’s one of those songs where the title sets the tone for the performance style, and it’s almost impossible to avoid having a good time with it (not that I’ve really attempted to).
Two things stood out for me from the day’s activities.
The first is how much people enjoy hearing what the other parts in the texture are doing. I wasn’t being particularly evangelical about duetting and its role in the development of musicianship on this occasion, but it was just appropriate, given the structure of the arrangement, to disaggregate the parts to help people understand where their main anchor points were within the texture. At the end of the day, this was the main things that several people said they’d found most useful.
Not only that, but as we went through, I found myself using the responses of the people who were listening as part of how I gauged progress. My own ears told me when something was sounding better than it had a minute earlier, but the faces of other chorus members told me when it was sounding better than they had heard it sound before.
The other significant discovery for the chorus was the relationship between tone colour, tempo and body language. There was a tendency during the morning for the song to keep reverting to a slightly slow tempo – we’d speed it up, but if we started focusing on something else, it would slip back into what a university lecturer of mine used to call the ‘moderato trap’.
After lunch, we spent some time with different singers out front giving feedback on the performance. And it’s always the way – you spend all that time working on technical and expressive details, and the main thing that people notice is how much the singers are smiling! After feedback from two or three different people, the facial and bodily engagement improved significantly – and then the magic happened. Once people were smiling and moving, not only did the tone brighten, as you’d expect from the effect of the lifted cheek muscles on the placement, but the tempo stopped flagging.
We talk about music’s expressive qualities in multiple dimensions – timbre, articulation, speed, volume – but these are analytical categories. They give us the means to focus on different aspects of a musical performance in isolation, but none of them actually exist in isolation. Rather, the overall expressive impact is a synthetic effect; it is holistic rather than analytical. If we are having difficulties controlling one dimension, we don’t have to solve the problem using that same dimension. Rather, if we get other elements of the overall expressive tone in place, the dimension we’re struggling with may just fix itself.