Keeping Time with Signature

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The Saturday after my evening with the Venus Effect, I stayed down south to spend the day with Signature, working with them again on the package including an arrangement of mine they’ll be bringing to contest in the autumn. They had helpfully primed me with specific areas of focus: setting, maintaining, and transitioning between tempi, and using vocal colour to tell the story. If you think that sounds like a fine way to spend a Saturday, you would be right.

I last saw Signature in January (our planned March session having been inconveniently snowed off) and it was very striking how much progress they had made in the interim. The chorus were perhaps less aware of this – after all, they have experienced the improvement incrementally on a week-to-week basis, rather than hearing it all at once. It is always comforting to know that the rehearsal process has been making a difference.

They have developed a good deal of the choreography during that time, and during the first part of the day we explored the relationship between moves, characterisation and rhythmic flavour. The voice always sings along with the body, so you can help define and refine matters of tempo and feel by addressing them through how the singers execute the choreography. In a couple of places I made recommendations to tweak moves to make it easier to synchronise passages; otherwise it was more a case of connecting gesture to a rhythmicised body language that suited the persona of the song.

A theme that came up frequently was the way that where there’s a problem, you often need to look at what is happening just before to solve it. A key example for our tempo goals was in preparing moves – you need to get your limbs to the starting-point of a move at a defined time before the move happens if it is to help rather than hinder the rhythm. But it was also true of tuning – it’s so often the note before the one that’s out of focus that needs attention, and once you give that one the care it deserves, the ‘problem’ note solves itself.

In the main body of the song, the issue was making sure the brisk tempo they set at the start didn’t relax back into something more comfortable and thus blander. We used a metronome as a diagnostic device to discover where this slippage was taking place, and therefore address what was causing it.

(Funnily enough I had been using a metronome for the converse problem, a tendency to speed up, with my own chorus a few days earlier. I am reminded of Prof Raymond Warren warning against the tendency to fall into the ‘moderato trap’ – left to its own devices, all music will revert to the ordinary.)

What was interesting was the variety of different causes we found for ostensibly the ‘same’ problem. In addition to the physical issue of inadequate preparation for moves, we had both technical/vocal and conceptual/musical matters to address.

The former included breath-points on the down-beat, which needed to be kept rhythmic in order not to delay the onset of sound, and lyrics that had concatenated word-sounds preceding their main vowel, especially when these were singable, e.g. ‘quite’, ‘grow’, ‘ploy’. The ear takes the target vowel as the pulse, so you need to get through all that prefatory guff as promptly as possible in order to maintain the perceptual integrity of the tempo.

The latter pertained to phrase boundaries, and where the sense of the lyric joined what came as two-bar units in verse 1 into four-bar units in verse 2. The structural separation after two bars could easily introduce a micro-delay as the brains clocked a sense of an ending. We had to consciously join the concept the lyric articulated up into a single idea in order to maintain mental momentum through the whole phrase.

We also dedicated a few minutes to embouchure technique for bubbling. Bubbling extended musical passages is a great way to re-activate the voices after a break, and doing so had given me time to observe that quite a few singers were finding it rather harder work than they needed to.

A number of small adjustments made life a lot easier. One was to get the embouchure set before applying air, as separating out the processes allowed more precise control than doing it all at once. How the lips meet matters, as does the amount and location of muscular engagement in the face. The selfie pout is a useful starting point, as it brings the inner parts of the lips together while tucking in the cheeks so they don’t puff out when air is applied. A pout that puckers too roundly won’t work, so we added the notion of your mouth having a mammogram. Adding a bit of a smile also helped several of the singers.

Bubbling is such a useful device. It holistically improves so many aspects of vocal technique, while stretching the brain in interesting ways. The most important thing about the work we did on technique is that it has helped the chorus feel more in control of the process, and thus much more likely to choose to avail themselves of its benefits.

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