Next Step of the Journey with Welwyn Harmony

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Same warm-up location, now with more peopleSame warm-up location, now with more people

There are many nice things about repeat visits to a group over a relatively short time frame. You get to build relationships, developing trust and mutual understanding, both of which facilitate productive work together. And you also get to see progress.

Three months on from my last visit,Welwyn Harmony feels perceptibly stronger. They’ve not had an entirely easy ride of things in the interim – the back end of the Omicron wave was quite disruptive for them – but there were noticeably more people in the room than earlier in the year. Some are returning members, some are new, and both bring a sense of energy to the whole chorus that is audible in the voices.

They also have a good deal of new repertoire on the go, which also brings a sense of growth, of moving forward. Often people worry whether they’re ready to bring in a coach when music is only just embedded, but it can be a really useful time to work on things together. When the music is fresh, you haven’t got ingrained habits putting a brake on progress, and the need to repeat things several times as you work on technique helps familiarity with the music as a useful by-product.

One of our big themes for the evening was developing continuity of resonance. We first worked with bubbling, which remains one of the most effective holistic techniques for this. The headline benefits are benefits vocal - it is literally impossible to do if you are breathing casually or shallowly – but it also brings all kinds of musical benefits. It reveals when people are thinking about the song in an atomised way, with separate bursts of energy on each syllable, and gives you a medium through which to focus on line. There was a definite moment of joy on the discovery of how much melodic shape can emerge from what feels on first encounter like a rather strange and undignified actvity.

We then moved on reduce excess jaw movement, using the metaphor of singing like a ventriloquist. The point here is partly about reducing tension: a lot of action in the hinge of the jaw necessarily involves more muscular engagement around the face and neck than is ideal for singing. But it’s also about acoustics: moving the jaw up and down means that the primary resonant space inside the mouth is constantly changing shape. It’s much easier to get a consistent tone if your instrument remains a consistent size and shape.

This technique is one which is easy to describe, and not actually that hard to do as an exercise. The challenge is integrating it with everything else you are used to doing as a singer. It makes you realise how much of the emotional connection with the lyrics had been invested through vigorous articulation, and means you have to find ways both to feel and display emotional shape when your jaw is placid.

A discussion of this emerged from some pair-work in which people monitored each others as they sang, with a simple signal if they saw too much jaw movement. In the process some observed that it made them ‘look like statues’. Are we allowed to smile while being ventriloquists? came the question. There are two things going on here: part of the issue is the thinky face you get when concentrating on an unfamiliar task – people are rarely at their most expressive when learning a new technique! But there’s also a process of discovering that your cheeks, lips and eyes can operate independently from your jaw.

One singer commented that a useful way to develop this would be to practise in front of a mirror at home. Practising at home is so often a good answer. It’s also instructive to watch the performances of actual ventriloquists, especially those who sing as part of their act. They demonstrate very clearly not only how little you need to move your jaw to sing, but also how to keep your eyes alive at the same time – they do look a bit unnatural, to be sure, but they offer great clarity by exaggeration of what we’re aiming for.

The trick, of course, is not to imitate the ventriloquist’s puppet, who is wildly over-articulating to create the impression that they are the ones emitting the sound - and also to distract from that slight sense of unnaturalness arising from their operator’s multi-tasking. For singing in chorus, the point is to minimise jaw movement in the interests of improved resonance and consistency, you don’t actually have to pretend you’re not singing.

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