Less is More with The Venus Effect

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I didn't get a pic, so here's one of theirsI didn't get a pic, so here's one of theirsTuesday evening brought my friends The Venus Effect to me by Skype for a coaching session on the new arrangement of mine they’ll be bringing to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in October. As I’ve observed before, this mode of coaching is somewhat different from the face-to-face experience, but still offers opportunities to get loads done.

The thing you might be worried about – sound quality – is to my mind less of an issue; after all, the 78prm record offered valid and artistic musical experiences. I notice more that the potential for inhabitance is impaired – the slight time delay means you can’t fully coordinate with the quartet, either gesturally or vocally. So the experience is more arms-length, giving instructions to be acted on, rather than being in the music with them. Still, since we couldn’t find a time in the diary we could all be in the same room together, Skype coaching is infinitely more useful than no coaching.

The Venus Effect are at an interesting place in their journey where the technical and the artistic intersect. Earlier in the year our work on breath was both about the vocal dimensions of support and shedding tension and the communicative dimension of emotional engagement. This time our work was on finding a way to inhabit the song that both facilitated musical flow and created authority in the song’s persona.

The quartet started out my identifying that wanted the song to have a hotter, tighter rhythmic drive and a greater expressive range. They were giving it plenty of energy, but nonetheless losing momentum, so our first task was to redirect that energy from the surface of the performance and into its depths. We did this by getting their weight connected to their feet so the lower bodies were doing the primary support work, and then calming down the upper bodies.

This in turn gave us space to add a contained and precise sling-swing click to align them rhythmically, and suddenly the song sprang into life. The comparison for me was with conducting: when you want the music to go faster, adding large muscle groups get in the way, so you concentrate the action in the wrist. The word has only come to me as write this up, but what we were doing was streamlining the song.

We went through a similar process with the articulation of the words. The song has distinctive and unusual lyrics, with cleverly-written rhyme schemes, and whilst the temptation is therefore to dig into it to bring out the detail, this was tending to over-energise the jaw and tongue. Singing it in the manner of a ventriloquist brings a much cleaner articulation and a much more consistent resonance to the sound as the words are no longer constantly changing the shape of the pharynx. The instruction was to sing it so a listener could hear the words, but a lip-reader would find it hard to follow.

That was the technical dimension. The artistic dimension was on what this was doing to the way the song communicates. When you are perceptibly putting lots of energy in, that can come over as trying too hard, being too eager – a mode that as social beings will be read as relatively low status. People who are secure in their authority stand still at the centre and leave others to do the running around.

Similarly with dynamic shaping. This is a song for which the descriptor ‘soft’ is pretty much never appropriate, but there are a good many places where a key point can be delivered with greater command by lowering the voice. The ways you approach technical elements such as posture and articulation, that is, have a direct impact on the kind of musical characterisation available to you.

And beyond these actorly concerns was the musical imperative to let the music speak. It is a fabulous song they have chosen, and the quartet’s job as performers is the same as my job as an arranger: to get out of its way to let it through. When they over-energised the execution, it was like they were standing in the song’s light; when they stopped pushing and let the music flow, it came alive.

There was one moment of particularly vivid imagery in the words where I gave them the ideal that a listener’s visual memory of that moment should be of the mental pictures the words evoked rather than of what the quartet looked like singing it.

Having spent a week recently teaching rehearsal techniques at Harmony University, I was aware of how we were scooting up and down the Dilts pyramid as we worked. We were addressing behaviours (what do you do with your musculature?) as the means to change capabilities (the capacity to deliver the song with a more convincing rhythmic flow).

This in turn meant we had to address beliefs (is it okay for it to feel so relatively effortless when we sing?). And I became aware as we went on that characterisation is a wonderfully indirect way to address identity: the need to portray a persona gives a safe space to try on other ways of being for artistic purposes that might otherwise feel too unfamiliar.

Because these kinds of changes to the way you inhabit yourself as a singer can be quite disorienting. It is easy to say ‘stop over-articulating’, but if you have experienced yourself as an expressive being through your investment in lyric, this can feel like you’re losing your communicative power. (You’re not, you’re just reconfiguring your relationship with it.) Fortunately, when the changes allow you to achieve the musical results you have desired, that’s quite motivating.

And this capacity to reconfigure is one of the key things that any group needs to continue developing. It requires more courage the better you get, as you have already invested a good deal into achieving your successes to date. But the things that take you to a score of 75 can stop you getting to 85.

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