On Mechanical Singing

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A reasonably common problem among amateur choirs is the tendency to ‘just sing the notes and words’ – that is, to sing the music in a choppy, mechanical way. We often deal with this through vocal means, introducing a more continuous vocal support to underpin a more legato approach to phrasing.

But I think this is also a musical issue; it is also about how people are thinking about what they sing.

It occurs when people experience the notes as discrete entities: here is a B flat, here is an A, here is an F, without really connecting with the dimension in which all notes have duration. Note by note singing is where people only really pay attention to the start of the note, they don’t live with it through time.

It’s also noticeable that clunky performances don’t have much natural gesture – any bodily movements will be pre-planned rather than owned by the singers, and the stance will be rather stiff and doll-like. This is another clue that the performers are only really connecting with the structural, analytical dimension of the music, and not the imagistic, holistic side. In the terms I used in this post , they are experiencing music only as particle, not as wave.

So the challenge is not only how to connect up words into phrases at a vocal level, but how to open up an entire dimension of musical thought. Coaching methods that use gesture can be especially helpful here. Mark Hale, for instance, has singers think about singing in cursive script rather than printing, and asks them to trace the line with their fingers as they sing. I have also found asking people to play their line on an imaginary violin helpful. These methods are effective (a) because they model the joined-upness we’re after, (b) because they put the experience of this connection directly in the control of the singers, and (c) because they perforce engage the dynamic, imagistic dimension of thought that has been missing.

Of course, the biggest challenge here is not so much how to mess with the singers’ heads as the director’s. It’s all very well to flirt with joined-up musical thought in a coaching session, but if the director doesn’t embrace the musical insights accessible through these methods, then it almost doesn’t matter what the singers understand: they’ll continue to sing as they are being directed. As with all coaching methods, probably the single significant determinant of success will be the director’s desire. If this helps them solve a problem they care about, it will have a lasting impact; if they don’t hear the need for change, it will disappear almost immediately.

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