Another Windsor Wednesday

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Wednesday took me back to Windsor for a second visit to the Royal Harmonics. In some ways it feel like no time at all since I was last with them, but I couldn't help but notice that it was light when I arrived for my previous visit, but this time night had already fallen.

It was a pleasingly productive evening's work, with focused attention on several different pieces covering a wide range of musical and vocal issues. Their director, John Palmer, had some very clear agenda items for the songs he had picked to work on, but at the same time balanced his areas of interest with an openness for my diagnoses of a song's highest priorities for work. Sometimes the areas I picked up as the most important for attention were the same as the ones he had ear-marked to work on, whilst sometimes I brought up things that had not particularly been on his radar; either case was useful and interesting.

Another feature of the evening's productivity was that the chorus was not only quick to pick up new ideas (which is a reasonably common attribute), but they were also quick to retain and reapply them (which is a rarer skill). For instance, we did some work on increasing the continuity of resonance behind a string bass effect at the start of one song, and when a similar effect appeared in a later section with different material, they immediately transferred the tone we had developed for the opening over to this section.

My guess is that their style of rehearsal planning facilitates this speed of retention. The combination of clear prioritising and only staying long enough with a song to achieve that particular set of goals before moving on means that everyone knows what we're currently working on, but nobody is indulged in the luxury of falling back into autopilot. Parkinson's Law is a good reason to keep a session moving on.

The moments with the string bass were part of a theme that came up more than once during the evening of energising the line right through each note. The Royal Harmonics are better than many groups at energising consonants - we often had a clear sense that initial word sounds had musical and expressive functions as well as carrying meaning. But the focus on onset of sounds sometimes resulted in a marginal loss of attention to where a vowel meets the sound that follows.

Giving full value to these connections has quite an astonishing effect - it dramatically increases the overall resonance available. I find this interesting as I would usually address questions of legato and resonance at the level of vocal technique via continuity of breath. But addressing it simply via continuity of attention produced the vocal benefits without actually having to talk about technique at all. I am sure that this is largely because this is a group with good vocal habits to draw upon, but it still demonstrated quite intriguingly that interrelationship between legato, resonance and support.

(And, in connection with the thoughts on melody that emerged from my last visit, we came up with the simplistic but unarguable point in favour of continuity of tone that 'when you sing more, you get more music'.)

We also had one of those excitingly creative moments when we developed a new metaphor to help control an aspect of the music that emerged directly from the needs of the moment. This was in the context of a couple of short-range swells and diminuendi used for dramatic effect. The shape of these was working very well, but there was a tendency for the tone to drop off as the volume dropped. Indeed, the metaphor of volume was part of the problem: big sounds were filling a large space, but the small sounds were filling a space that didn't extend very far beyond the singers. So, an audience member had the sense of the music flowing out towards them, then receding back away again.

So we switched to the metaphor of projection, and imagined a huge screen at the front of the stage onto which the singers would project the music for the audience to perceive. Big sounds would show up on this screen as big shapes; little sounds would show up as little shapes. But all the sounds would be available at this same point. This allowed the chorus to get the all the dramatic benefit of the dynamic gestures whilst keeping a vibrancy of tone throughout.

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