Back from Wonderlland*

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I spent last weekend at the British Association of Barbershop Singers annual Convention, which this year was held in Llandudno. It was a rich and stimulating weekend with much both to learn from and to warm the heart – both musically and socially. And the setting was gorgeous – it would be easy to have a very pleasant weekend there even without a couple of thousand of your friends to sing with!

I came out of the quartet semi-finals on Friday night with some interesting observations about the relationship between stage presence and vocal resonance.

There were several quartets which featured one very experienced singer (in a number of them, past gold medallists) with two or three much less experienced quartetters.

The first thing that came to mind in these cases of course was: kudos to the experienced guys for taking to the stage with people who were as yet of only moderate skill in order to help them grow. I’m sure it must make the first taste of what can be quite an intimidating experience much smoother and pleasanter if you have one person in the quartet that you can absolutely rely on not to fall apart. I look forward to seeing these relative novices doing the same favour to newbies in a decade’s time.

The second thought that followed was that the previous medallists were distinguishable from the novices by both look and by sound. Their bodies were more integrated, with less extraneous tension in the face, neck and hands, and their gestures were more fluid and natural. Vocally, there was both a cleaner legato and as a result a rounder and more consistent resonance.

Now, you’d expect more experienced performers with successful track records to be better at both singing and performing than their less experienced peers. Besides, they could afford to be more relaxed in this context, since they neither needed to prove themselves nor were gunning for a repeat win. But it was striking how the two dimensions of performance appeared strongly related. The singing category judges use the phrase ‘free from apparent effort’ as part of their description of the style’s vocal ideal, but it seems to apply equally if not more so to the visual dimension. Indeed, the importance of not trying too hard is a theme that Tom Metzger has returned to recently on Owning the Stage.

Now, this suggests that there are some interesting coaching strategies to be played with, approaching stage presence via vocal coaching and vice versa. If a group’s performance seems a little stilted, it may prove more effective to help them develop their vocal resonance and unit sound rather than getting them to project more. The former strategy will endow them with a sense of sonic presence that will inspire confidence and help them perform with more assurance, while the latter will leave them stilted but over-emphatic. Conversely, if a group’s sound is rather muted, focusing attention onto vocal technique can encourage self-consciousness and thus counter-productive bodily tension. Encouraging an emotional connection with the music and an open, positive relationship with the audience by contrast can help them find a more centred, true place for the voice to sit.

*Wonderlland is the nick-name for the Llandudno convention coined by my friends in the NBYC.

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