Making Connections with One Acchord

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I had an adventure up to the Scottish borders at the weekend to work with One Acchord, based in Bowden. Like many LABBS choruses, they are preparing for this year’s Convention with a mix of well-established members with some prior contest experience, and a sizeable post-pandemic intake who will be on the big stage for the first time this autumn.

Our work was therefore based around both developing the musical and vocal skills their songs needed and understanding the processes of mental and emotional preparation to make the most of significant performance occasions.

The vocal skill we focused most on was that of vocal efficiency: finding ways to help the vocal folds meet more closely. The chorus already had a sound that had both integrity and warmth, but there was also some air in the sound. This meant that their sound wasn’t carrying as much as it might, and also that singing to the ends of phrases was harder than it needed to be, as they were giving air away that would have carried them there.

Engaging the core to underpin the continuity of breath is key to helping the vocal folds meet more efficiently, and we approached this from a variety of directions during the day. They were already thinking about their posture in terms of alignment, so we developed this by rooting the stance more securely, then added the image of pulling on a string that runs from belly button to bra strap to support the airflow. I like this image (which I picked up from Sean Bui) not just for the precision with which it engages the muscles – thus avoiding the kinds of excessive effort and concomitant tension you can sometimes experience working on support – but also because the string image is congruent with conceptualising legato.

We also used a lot of SOVT sounds (zzz, vvv, brrr, ng), again because they automatically encourage core engagement, and also because they keep the vocal folds nicely in balance. If you think about increasing resonance purely in terms of adding air pressure, you can sometimes end up pushing the sound outwards; SOVTs help you develop a sense of vocal poise. As well as being great for thinking about things like musical flow, of course, which you can get on with to keep you interested while your voice experiences these adjustments to its physical set-up.

Our performance preparation work provided an intermittent change of activity to help pace a long day. We started off with understanding the Yerkes-Dodson curve and its implications for singers, then came to have a discussion about individual and group ways to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. A key theme was the way that breathing, stretching and relaxation exercises from yoga and other forms of mindful practice not only have physiological effects, but also serve to calm the mind. You only have the one brain, so if it is focused on a breathing mantra, it won’t be distracting you with random panics.

We also talked a lot about framing performance experiences. It was useful in this context to think about different kinds of goals – process and individual goals as well as outcome goals - but also to consider what the point of performing fundamentally is. I quoted Mo Field’s devastatingly wise advice that ‘Your only job is to make someone in that audience feel less lonely’.

A nice exercise in this context is to have people pair up and sing something to each other. The point is purely to remind each other what a blessing it is to be sung to. As an observer to this activity I noticed how expressive and open and caring the faces of the singers became as they communicated one-on-one, and how empathetic the faces and body language of the listeners became as they entered the same ‘house of being’. In formal performance situations we don’t see audience members respond so directly – unless they are children who haven’t yet been trained out of their honesty and spontaneity – but we need to remember that’s what goes on inside people as we listen.

Skills matter, because they make the music sound nicer, and mean that our audiences don’t have to worry about if we’ll manage and can just enter into our musical world. And the nicer the music sounds, the more we can touch the hearts of our listeners. But it is a waste of a human encounter to spend a performance worrying about mistakes and lapses in control. We rehearse to make our skills fluent, then go out to spread the joy.

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