Norwich Harmony, and the Relationship between Voice and Imagination

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norwichThursday saw me out East to coach Norwich Harmony at the start of the convention preparation season. They have been making significant strides in recent years in their consistency of control over matters of vocal production and unit sound, and it was interesting to hear how these efforts played out working on different parts of their repertoire.

To start with, there was a clear difference in technical control between a piece they have only recently learned and one that has been in their repertoire for a couple of years. It’s one of the endless dilemmas in developing a chorus that, while keeping songs in the repertoire for longer gives opportunities for depth of learning as familiarity with content frees up attention for other matters, at the same time, each song tends to act as a snap-shot of the skill level the singers had when it was first introduced.

The solution to this dilemma is of course to keep a balance between old and new in the repertoire (which was what everyone would probably plan to do anyway). On the bright side, to be able to hear the difference does give a measure of how much the skills are progressing over time.

Also interesting – in both older and newer repertoire – was a correlation between technical control in a vocal sense and the clarity of the singers’ conception of the music.

In the older piece, for instance, there was a perceptible difference between moments where both synchronisation and clarity of tone were strong, and moments where the sound was muddier and the parts less well-coordinated. Breaking this section down in various ways (singing staccato to focus on synchronisation, bubbling to focus on continuity of breath, singing to vowels only to focus on continuity of tone) revealed that the moments where the words were tending to be chopped off early were also the places where the vowels had a less consistent placement, and likewise the places where the singers struggled more to remember exactly what was going on when the contexts were changed. Quality of mental grasp of musical content correlated directly with quality of vocal control.

As we worked on the end of the newer piece, I had in the back of my mind to address a detail of a vowel whose shape and placement was a little out of focus, but put it to one side until we had sorted out the delivery of a phrase so that its patterns of movement and rest fell into place. But once we had cleared up the phrasing, the vowel magically fixed itself.

At another point, we duetted a short passage that contained some unusual chord choices, as it was in that state where all the notes were right but the harmonies weren’t always gelling. We discovered all kinds of interesting relationships between the parts here, and also had some useful insights about the why the unusual chords were meaningful in the context of the lyric.

When we put it all back together again, I invited the chorus to feel as if they were singing not just their own part, but as if they were singing the whole texture – a mental leap that duetting sets up particularly well. Several of the singers responded to this by saying that they found this exercise gave them a greater sense of vocal freedom, as if they had more space in their throats when they made room for all four parts.

There are respects in which work on musical understanding and vocal technique are distinct areas of endeavour. Both are needed for a successful performance, but each has its own characteristic methods and exercises for development. It is nonetheless true that they are inseparable: when we sing, we engage both at once.

You can see why I find this way of spending my time fascinating, can't you?

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