Listening Louder with the Sussex Harmonisers

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I spent a happy Saturday workshopping and coaching with the Sussex Harmonisers at the weekend. They have an interesting set-up: one club, with one board and music team, but two choruses, one male-voice, the other female-voice, which also currently share a director (though they haven’t always done so). The two choruses operate largely independently as ensembles, with separate rehearsal nights, but the shared infrastructure allows them to coordinate and collaborate on repertoire and performance plans.

Saturday was their first shared education event, and they devised a very effective model for it. In the morning, I worked with both choruses together in a workshop themed ‘The Listening Chorus’. Then after lunch, they took it in turns to have 45-minute sessions of coaching on songs from their respective repertoires, with the other chorus listening.

That structure would always have been a good plan, giving the singers a chance to pace themselves a bit, and providing opportunities to cross-reference things worked on with each that were going to be useful to the other. But their chosen theme really tied it all together as the morning’s activities had opened up a much greater alertness to what you can listen for.

My starting point in planning the workshop was that we had a roomful of people who already like music and have considerable experience between them, so there are a lot of listening skills already available. What we needed was therefore, first, space to focus on them, and second, ways to access each other’s perceptions. We are all good at hearing the things we usually notice, but may not notice other things unless they are brought to our attention. Hence we alternated practical singing and discussion-based exercises, so that there was direct musical experience to reflect on in the discussions, which in turn generated conceptual content to inform the next phase of musicking.

It is not surprising that, during this process, we found the music we were working with sounding progressively better: more cleanly synchronised, better balanced, more artistically shaped. That was, after all the goal. But I also took great pleasure in how the process facilitated increasingly strong teamwork, both within each existing chorus and, more strikingly, between them – and particularly in how happy they looked when they noted how well their fellow singers were working together. I recently read an article about the role of group singing in the evolution of human social bonding, and Saturday’s workshop brought to the fore how apparently technical dimensions of music like vowel matching and rhythmic control can also fulfil very basic belonging needs.

The phrase ‘listen louder’ came up in the afternoon session, when we were working on balance in a particular song, but also serves as a good executive summary of the day. It is a phrase I developed years ago as an alternative to the more common practice of asking people to ’back off’. It’s not only more encouraging in tone, but it also produces more reliable results.

The thing about balance is that it is a dynamic dimension of music: how much you need to project is both a matter of musical context (do I currently have the tune?, am I on the root or the 3rd of the chord?, etc) and of the circumstances of the day (what is the acoustic like?, how many, and which, people are absent today?, how is everybody else doing right now?). You can make general decisions about the former that will always be valid, but you have to figure out the latter in real time.

So, if you can’t hear the tune (or the countermelody, or the part your line particularly works in tandem with at that moment) you need to listen louder until you can. And when you can, you’ll be guaranteed to be in balance. This may entail singing more loudly or softly on different occasions, but you don’t have to worry about that once you know how to find the balance with whoever is there on that day.

I like this approach, not just because you get to enjoy connecting with other singers while using it, but also because I find it easier than having to remember what specific performance instructions. As I had cause to say on more than one occasion during the day, it’s a fine line between efficiency and laziness, and that is the line I like to tread.

Thank you for an amazing day, Liz. We all appreciated you making the journey to West Sussex to share your expertise with us. It was lots of fun as well as informative and helpful.

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