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Tuesday night saw me back with my friends at Bristol A Cappella for a final coaching session before their performance in the BABS Mixed Chorus contest at the end of this month. Since I saw them in January they have been doing a lot of work to develop their performance package, and a video of one of their run-throughs had revealed that they had lost some quality in legato and shaping in the process, so they asked me to come along and help reintegrate their singing quality with their performance.

It is a very common experience in choruses that use choreography and/or staging that the singing takes a hit when you work on these other dimensions. Sometimes the physical movements actually get in the way of the voice, but mostly it’s simply because we’ve only got the one brain each and shifting your attention away from one dimension of performance to work on another necessarily short-changes the first of some TLC. In fact, we only had one actual gesture that was disrupting the musical flow, and this was a matter of how it was executed, rather than the form of the gesture itself.

The thing about this kind of work is that, while a lot of what you want to work on is singing technique, you don’t want to work on it by focusing on singing technique. Once people have shifted into an overtly expressive mode, you don’t want them to start getting their thinky faces on again. So, the game was to tidy up singing as much as possible through their story-telling. As this is what I like to do a lot of the time anyway, we were good here.

A lot of our attention focused on the ends of phrases, though it was interesting that this makes it sound a more homogenous experience than it actually was. Phrase-ends, it turns out, can get under-nourished in a variety of ways.

In some places, it became apparent that where the staging took the singers’ eyelines away from their director Iain, the sound quality dipped. This is of course a compliment to Iain’s directing, but we needed to transfer the musical richness that had been centred in his hands into the singers’ safe-keeping at these moments. So, we focused not only the singers’ gazes at these moments, but also their ears: your eyes look in this direction for narrative meaning, your ears home in on the beauty of this chord to capture the feeling of the moment.

At other moments, it was a focus on the linguistic meaning that was undermining the phrase ends. In speech, your brain loses interest once it gets to the final syllable of a sentence: the meaning is complete, there’s nothing more to do. But in music, that syllable needs to stay alive with the same level of interest right to the end of the note. In some contexts, this involved getting people thinking about sustaining the note through, at other times (particularly in faster tempi) it was more a matter of focusing on making the following breath point really rhythmic, which by necessity got everyone singing up to the point of release.

Related to this was the ever-usefulness of the thought-point as a means to make breath points meaningful and develop expressive continuity between phrases. Turns out it also tidies up synchronisation when people are thinking together, not merely breathing together.

What I found interesting in this process was what a profound impact these relatively minor changes had. The musical momentum created a sense of continuity of intent, aiding the suspension of disbelief. Phrase-boundaries are the places where singers risk dropping slightly out of character, as we tend be less aware of ourselves as expressive beings in the interstices between statements. Making them central to the story-telling gives the ensemble the opportunity to build longer-range emotional arcs, harnessing the power they had created rather than dissipating it when they breathed.

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