Being Sensible with Silver Lining

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My title today comes from one of the more surprising bits of feedback I have had after a coaching session. To be fair, it wasn’t actually me that was described as ‘sensible’ (I was as daft as ever), it was the ideas we had worked on. The point was that the singer didn’t feel she had a long shopping list of things to remember, because the ideas fitted in with her existing musical concept of the songs, but her use of the word ‘sensible’ to articulate this point still made me laugh out loud (well, squawk).

My day with Silver Lining chorus had the brief to help them discover more musical opportunities with the package they will be taking to LABBS Convention in the autumn, with its first complete outing at a local festival this month. They already had a clear concept of what they wanted to do with the two songs, so it was a matter of finding ways to help them realise that vision more vividly.

Interestingly, this involved both global approaches and homing in on individual details. There was a strong commitment to story-telling which sometimes meant the lyrics slightly overshadowed other musical elements such as melody or rhythm that also played significant roles in characterising the music, so exercises that stripped out words to focus on other things proved useful in several contexts.

The commitment to story-telling however gave a very useful way to integrate elements of technique without sending people deep into a thinky-faced mode of self-management. Vocal tone was a case in point: we worked in a couple of spots in their ballad on finding a tone that carried the intimacy and tenderness they sought without adding air to the sound.

Terms such as ‘soft’ and ‘sweet’ sometimes have a tendency to remove core from the sound, but we addressed this through thinking primarily about expression rather than about adduction between the vocal folds. Focusing on the importance of those moments to the protagonists in the song’s story, and indeed the risks entailed in their vulnerability, brought clarity and vitality to the sound by raising the emotional stakes.

We also had some interesting conversations about breath control and expressiveness. Their ballad is shaped such that the phrases express complete thoughts with natural breath-points between them, and so it makes sense for everyone to breathe together for expressive unity. Later on in the day we did some really artistic work bringing these points into the musical narrative as ’thought points’, but before we could get to that we had to tidy up a certain amount of sneaky extracurricular breathing mid-phrase.

The thing about helping yourself to a little top-up of air between words isn’t just that disturbs the synchronisation of the ensemble sound (though of course it does), it’s that it dilutes believability. It interrupts the sense of expressive purpose, the musical equivalent of letting your eyes flick down to your phone while you’re ostensibly giving your attention to the person in front of you.

And from a practical perspective, if you are in the habit of doing this, you’re not going to develop the skill of making your breath last the whole phrase, as you never practice doing so. I encouraged the singers to commit to the phrase, and accept that sometimes, during the rehearsal process, they would find themselves running out of air and essentially miming the last few notes. That’s okay: that’s how your body learns what it needs for that phrase, and to improve a skill you have to stretch yourself, which means you don’t always succeed every time. But it’s much easier (and more rewarding) to develop this skill in service of a purposeful expressive agenda than merely as a technical exercise.

In a similar way we re-framed the term ‘snatch breath’, to ‘urgent breath’ at a point in the song where there emotional intensity meant there wasn’t very long between phrases. A ‘snatch’ breath will never be enough to support a whole phrase, as it will sit high in the chest and encourage tension. Connecting the breath to the emotional shape of the narrative kept it connected into the core where both our breath and our expressive intentions start.

At one point during the day, MD Sara Jackson engaged what was clearly an established part of the chorus’s lexicon in asking them to ‘sing intelligently’. I like this very much. It gives credit to the singers for their knowledge and skills, and thereby fosters not only accountability for applying them (useful for the director), but also personal autonomy and confidence (satisfying for everybody).

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