Letting the Music Out with Norwich Harmony

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I always dither over devising titles that could encapsulate a whole day’s work with a chorus and their director, but rarely more than this time. Joining the Dots with Norwich Harmony? Finding the Flow? Making Life Easier? Taking the Muscle Out? All of these would be true of our musical adventures together, which were deep and satisfying.

We had two songs to work on. One was relatively new to the chorus and was basically coming into shape, having got to the point where it would benefit from refinement of the detail. The other was established in the performing repertoire, but had rather got stuck; they had a vision of the kind of flow they wanted from it, but had been struggling to achieve it in practice.

The opening run-through of both songs at the start of the day suggested that in both director Alison Thompson was giving a lot to the chorus but not necessarily getting as much back. They clearly enjoyed her commitment and expressiveness but they were absorbing her energy rather than amplifying it back to her. So, we used the probably simpler task of working on the newer up-tempo song to explore the dynamic of the ensemble teamwork, to develop the techniques we’d need for the more complex challenge of freeing up their ballad.

There were some familiar themes from some of my recent work with other conductors, although the detail of how it plays out is always specific to the particular conductor and choir. I found myself working a lot with the singers on calming the jaws down to maintain a more consistent resonant space, and on joining these more consistent vowel shapes into more joined-up lines. At the same time, I was encouraging Alison to think about the path between her icti, about how she joined the dots.

I mostly didn’t share that latter part of the process with the singers, not to be secretive (though there is a particular pleasure in saying, ‘Your MD is magic and I’m not going to tell you how she just did that’), but just so that Alison would know that changes she heard were the result of her gestures rather than the chorus doing things differently because they’d been told to. So we didn’t make an explicit conceptual connection with the vocal work on legato and the conducting work on joining the dots, though to my mind the two were intimately related. The cleaner line the singers were producing gave something for Alison to tap into and shape with her gestures, while the continuity of her connection with their sound gave her a flexible and nuanced control of tone.

Having done this primary groundwork of resetting the conductor-choir bond, we had something to build on when trouble-shooting the trickier musical content. Alison had said she was seeking more flow in the story-telling, so – contrary soul that I am – I started this process by removing the story to work on its musical setting in isolation.

We started out by working on a single vowel that is important in the poetry, getting it in a shape and placement that was resonant and beautiful before using it for whole phrases. This allowed very focused work on flow, conceived in both vocal and musical terms. On the one hand we needed to keep the integrity of the vowel wherever the line moved in pitch, on the other it allows Alison to conceive and shape phrases in purely musical terms, bringing out harmonic and melodic shape without the distraction of lyrics.

This also put everyone under rather more pressure than usual to attend to synchronisation. Without changing word sounds, to act as short-hand markers for where they were, everyone had to think, listen and watch more carefully to stay together.

And when they achieved this, we had the story once more. We didn’t yet have the words to specify where and when this story was taking place, but we had a very clear concept of the emotional shape of the narrative. Our task was then to sneak the words back in without disrupting the music. The consonants needed not to interrupt the flow of the line, and the vowels all needed to slot into the coherent resonant space we’d set up.

‘Less is More’ is the cliché of choral conducting for good reason. When Alison stepped back from explicitly displaying to her chorus what to do, and simply focused on shaping the music, her singers all stepped up and produced more committed and focused performances. But it was also easier for them, as taking the muscle out of an over-articulated line is just less vocally tiring, especially over a full day’s work. Both conductor and choir had moved up through the gears; instead of pedalling hard, they were cruising smoothly.

By the end of the day, it felt like we had let the music that had always wanted to happen out to live its best life. Over-exertion, in both physical and psychological senses, had been trapping it in, and when everyone stopped trying to make it happen, and simply let it be, it revealed the beauty they had been aspiring to create.

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