Expressive GraceNotes

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The obligatory warm-up picThe obligatory warm-up pic

I spent Saturday with my friends at the chorus formerly known as Brunel Harmony, working with them on their songs for the LABBS/European Convention next month. Since I last saw them, they have not only acquired their new chorus name, GraceNotes, but have established considerably more control over their consistency of technique. Our task was thus to marry vocal craft and choreography back to meaning to free them up to express the songs.

The primary vocal element that needed focused attention was reasserting control over breath points. There was a clear plan in place, but the extra cognitive load of adding choreography had resulted in extraneous breaths creeping in. The problem wasn’t that the singers couldn’t sustain the phrases (with perhaps one exception discussed below), but that the part of the brain that would remember when to breathe was too busy remembering the moves.

The trick to doing this is to hook the breath points to the Communicator’s role rather than the Manager’s, to move breathing from being a technical task to part of the story.

On one hand, you need to make the points where people should be breathing more meaningful. Why does the song need a moment of silence, just there? What is the character thinking, what are they doing? If you give a specific type of look to the person the song addresses at those moments, you ensure that the breaths are taken purposefully and with expressive impact.

This in turn means that the singers actually have enough breath to join together the phrases that need continuity, and can likewise do so with emotional intention. Not breathing at a specific moment is a negative, expressively-absent way of thinking about these phrase boundaries – ostentatiously joining them together gives you something positive to do with the moment instead.

There was one phrase, however, where the final note was embellished with a long swipe after the cadence that needed a good supply of air to sustain beyond the point of arrival. People were responding to this musical need by trying to sneak in a bit of extra air just before the last melody note. This interfered with communication, as it was a place you’d never choose to breathe for the sake of the lyric, whilst not really delivering a decent lungful either.

In theory it would be possible to train the lungs to last the course, but in terms of the amount of rehearsal time expended relative to resulting artistic reward this would be quite an expensive solution. It made more sense to find a place just a little earlier that did make lyrical sense to breathe, and do so meaningfully, lifting the rhythm and bringing extra life to the story. Having enough breath for the phrase-end embellishment was almost a by-product of the process once the singers had taken ownership of the interpolated breath.

The work with choreography worked both with the music and with the narrative. In several places there were gestures that were begging to be connected up to a vocal effect. Indeed, they were the kind of gestures I would routinely use as a rehearsal tool to help people feel expressive shaping.

In one spot, for example, a hand gesture followed the melodic shape, and adding a bit more of a loop to the route the hand followed brought a very natural legato to the voice. In another, a ghost of a lift to the third iteration of a repeated gesture allowed the last note of the phrase to blossom in the voice.

The work with the narrative involved connecting hands to words so as to function as speech-accompanying gesture, supporting the lyrics as naturally as spontaneous gesture functions in conversation. It helped to understand how these work: how a gesture has an approach, a stroke and a retraction, and how these relate to the meaning of a sentence.

It also helped to note that the face remained the most important element of non-verbal communication. Gesture is an expressive out-flow from the impulse to communicate, and that impulse shows in the face before it gets to either hands or words. An audience is much more interested in a singer’s face than their hands, and if their meaning isn’t in their face, the hands are just a distraction. But as soon as the song starts in the eyes, the gestures lose their studied air and become transparently believable.

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