Coaching with Phoenix

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Phoenixjul2012Tuesday evening saw me back with Phoenix chorus for an evening's coaching - nice not to leave it for six years before a re-match this time! My primary remit was to work with them on an arrangement they had commissioned from me last year, and which they have scheduled to perform in a couple of shows this September, though we also looked at a couple of other pieces to refresh our musical palate.

Most of our work was in the realms of musical characterisation, bringing out texture and colour implicit in the musical shapes. I always tend to think of this process as one of sculpting: developing the flat canvas of beautiful vocal tone into a more three-dimensional musical shape.

As a coaching process in this kind of work, I find myself shunting between two distinct modes. On one hand there is a focus on the specificity of this particular piece of music: how the combination of lyrical narrative, musical gesture, and - in this case, though not all cases - reference back to an iconic original recording position the song's persona. A sense of character emerges from the web of associations between the song's emotional flavour, the vocal and instrumental timbres of the original, and the way these shapes both feed and are fed from particular styles of body language and self-presentation.

(I often feel a little sorry for the people who have been tasked with taking notes, as my explanations of a musical feature can consist of a gesture+facial expression almost as often as they'll use words. But not everything in music can be written in words - otherwise we'd be fine making do with poetry. And the associations that are the hardest to spell are often the most memorable - not least now I think about it because if people have to think about them, they're more likely to retain them.)

On the other hand, there is a focus on principles that you can extrapolate from moment to moment within the song, and from song to song. For instance, it is a pretty safe generalisation that the more homophonic a texture is an a cappella idiom - the more people who are singing the same words at the same time - the more declarative is the mode of expression. Conversely, when you have more parts singing accompanimental syllables as a backing to the melody, the mode of expression is more personal, reflective or narrative - more conversational perhaps.

Likewise, a long note is almost invariably an invitation from composer and/or arranger for the singer to show off the beauty of their voice, and if sung in a spirit of vocal display, will add a wonderful sense of lift and flow to the music. And wide voicings - a larger interval between the highest and lowest notes in a chord - have a more relaxed and open feel than the urgency you find in tight voicings. (We also found some interesting correlations between this and the feel of the chord and the shapes of vowel in the work of Ed Waesche.)

What I like about all these structural musical features is that they are things you can identify and use expressively whether or not you are a confident music reader. Regular readers will know that I am strongly in favour of everyone getting better at music-reading however expert or novice they are, because that empowers you do things you wouldn't otherwise be able to. At the same time, everybody involved in singing does so because they respond to music, and you don't need the technical names for things to reflect intelligently on the emotion and meaning that lives within the music.

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