Belles of Three Sessions

‹-- PreviousNext --›

Working on back width...Working on back width...I had an action-packed day on Saturday with the Belles of Three Spires, with three quite different types of coaching activity.

We started off with the kind of music coaching you’d expect as a matter of course at this stage of the rehearsal calendar. They are learning a new (to them) song to take to contest in the autumn, and I was there to help them bring out the musical shape and expressive detail.

They had asked me to come and work with them in particular because it happened to be one of my arrangements, but, interestingly, the coaching process is much the same as it is when I coach other people’s music. It’s still a process of identifying the role of various musical features in the overall narrative, to help the singers bring out texture and meaning. It’s just slightly more efficient, since for the parts where I think, ‘What’s going on there then?’ I have a pretty good idea already.

Though, as someone with both roles – arranger and coach - you don’t always remember every detail of the arranging process. You still find yourself having to infer from the music why something has been written a certain way, just as you do when coaching music arranged by others.

This took from the end of the warm-up until lunchtime. For the first part of the afternoon, we switched to working on directing skills with the music team. We had the assistant directors working with actual songs, and three section leaders leading simpler material (warm-ups, rounds), and there were some interesting themes across the two sets of tasks.

We did some work on technique. It is enormously good for the confidence when you not only get some clarity on how exactly to start and stop the singing with a gesture, but also to know that all the singers you are working with are clear on how it works. It is likewise empowering to discover quite how much difference you can make to the choral sound by widening your back.

The activity that, to my ears, had the biggest impact across the team, though, was when I asked several of them to direct and divert their attention away from what they were showing, and instead focus on monitoring the singers. In the warm-up exercises, this was particularly to keep an eye on singing technique: do people need reminders about posture, or vowel shape? In a song, the needs are more complex, you’re monitoring not just for vocal needs, but also for what the music requires.

Even where a section leader didn’t think that she’d had enough brain capacity to give a specific gestural instruction, you could see and hear a remarkable difference. Her directing gestures became much more fluid and relaxed, and the singers did a lot of self-correction under the light of her gaze. She also produced a wonderful lift of stance with a subtle movement of her shoulders of which she was apparently unaware – but which the singers all saw, and felt, and obeyed.

The effect on the gestures – making them quieter, less emphatic – was also very evident within a song. But the reward here came in artistry. AMD Sylvia had been concerned that she wasn’t getting as much dynamic variety from the chorus as she would like, but in this mode it came effortlessly.

The third part of the day took our attention back to my arrangement, in which I had asked to see their work-in-progress on choreography. Here I put my arranger’s hat back on firmly. I am not a choreographer, but I think musically in both gestural and structural terms and I wanted to be sure their visual plan was using all the opportunities available to them.

This was a very useful exercise, not just for the detail of this particular piece, but for extracting principles to apply in the future. One key point was that the moments that are most surprising or striking musically are the ones that need visual pointing-up. The instinct may be to choreograph to the meaning of the lyric (especially in a framework of authentic communication), but often the musical interest lies in the subsequent embellishment.

Along similar lines, some gestures that work with the lyrics (e.g. to do with the act of embracing), get in the way of vocal production. If you bring your arms into or across your body at a melodic (and emotional) climax, the physical act of showing the intensity of feeling inhibits your vocal capacity to express it. Some nice context-specific solutions to that came out of the chorus, and I look forward to seeing how they develop them.

The same principle of making the visual content commensurate with musical shape works on the larger scale of structure too. We compared the narrative shape of a show-piece up-tone with a James Bond movie. The intro works like the action scene before the title sequence, to set up an exotic location, start to introduce the characters, give the first taste of your technical prowess. Throughout the story there will be an series of calmer passages, dramatically significant moments, and set-piece exciting bits, but you know the biggest explosions will happen towards the end. You need to make sure that whatever you do in the first three quarters of the song doesn’t upstage the passage from the last key change to the tag.

(We also decided that all Bond movies would be better with 1 minute 15 seconds removed from every fight scene, but add an extra song.)

So that was all fun and productive. But the nicest thing that happened to me all day was when a singer came up and thanked me for a previous coaching visit when she I had given her the confidence to sing out. It’s always a delight to make a difference during a coaching day, but to hear you’ve make a difference that has had a long-term effect, well it makes me feel like I’ve earned my place in the universe.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content