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Concentrating the Energy in Berlin

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Women in Black Mar24

Sometimes you find a single overarching theme for a coaching visit encompasses a range of areas to work on that initially seem quite disparate. Having the chance to listen to the group in advance increases the chance of spotting this in time to set the agenda from the outset. Such was my experience with Women in Black in Berlin last weekend.

Their recordings from the previous week’s rehearsal revealed a chorus with a clear sense of expressive intent, bringing a lot of energy to their performance. (I learned afterwards that their previous coach, Lisa Rowbathan, had done a lot of work with them on story-telling; that this came over in the recordings as a conspicuous strength is a testimony to her effectiveness.) I arrived with the aspiration to help them harness that energy in a more focused fashion to help them realise that intent more efficiently, both so that they didn’t have to work so hard, and so that their intentions would be communicated with greater clarity.

We did this via the metaphor, as my title suggests, of bringing the energy in from the peripheries to the core. Although I did consider using the image of ‘decluttering’ in the title, which was a a metaphor one of the singers used at the end of the weekend to describe our work. But it makes more sense to use the title that describes how we went about this simplifying process which involved building an imaginary furnace at the seat of the breath, conceiving it as the starting-point for both emotional expression and physical engagement.

In our first session, we laid the foundations for our work by using this image first to develop the connection of the breath to the voice, then to bring focus to the conducting technique of their director Melissa. We also used it to start getting their choreography to feel more relaxed, both as an end in itself (to reduce respiratory demands on the singers and to make it visually clearer for an audience), and to help the musical flow. Since the voice always follows the body, choreography offers direct opportunities to facilitate vocal fluency.

Once you’ve started to get a handle on the big, holistic, concepts, the details that require specific attention start to reveal themselves more explicitly. This particular vowel needs focusing, that particular consonant needs integrating into the phrase. Over-articulation is often a symptom of the desire to communicate, so noting that the jaw is a peripheral body part and not the main driver of the song helps to calm it down without locking it up.

Having a central concept to link together multiple dimensions of technical control also turns out to be very helpful for cognitive efficiency. We only have the one brain each, and if it has classified ‘doing the moves’, ‘singing technique’, and ‘telling the story’ in separate categories, it has to choose which to think about at any one time. When exploring specific details of technical execution, we still need to break things down into smaller parts to focus on the nitty-gritty, but when we want to reintegrate that detail back into the whole, it is much easier to do when you think of it as a specific example of a general principle than as one of a shopping-list of Things to Get Right.

I also had the opportunity to work with the Shady Ladies, a relatively new quartet from within the chorus. One of the things I really enjoy working on with quartets is rehearsal methods. By definition the group is made up of people with a relatively well developed sense of musical autonomy: they are each happy to take sole responsibility for their part, and they all bring opinions and insights into the music and its modes of expression to the party.

Hence, they are well equipped to operate rehearsal procedures that harness that intelligence to build the ensemble identity: its sound, its sense of pacing and delivery, its composite personality. We did a certain amount of work where I was doing the musical problem-solving or helping individuals with their vocal technique. But I was far more interested in furnishing a collection of approaches that they could continue use productively after I had gone home.

Mo Field talks about a chorus becoming a ‘self-cleaning oven’, but developing a quartet is more like an appliance that not only maintains itself, but has to build itself first. (Actually, the longer I think about this metaphor the more outlandish it becomes, but I’m leaving it in for the opportunity to quote Mo)

There are multiple ways to gauge the effectiveness of a coaching visit. Did people have a good time? Did the music sound better at the end than at the beginning? But I think my favourite is: are people looking forward to working on it all again next rehearsal? The proof of the coaching is in the subsequent consolidation.

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