Silver Lining, Melodic Lines

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Saturday took me over to Coventry to visit my friends at Silver Lining and spend the day working with them on their new ballad. They had had it for four weeks, so it was just at that point where they basically knew it, but hadn’t yet practised it so thoroughly that it would be hard to make changes. So, the perfect moment at which to have a coaching session focused on getting inside the song.

As is my wont in these situations, I’m not going to tell you what the song is, as they may want to control the manner in which they reveal it to the world, but I think it is fair game to tell you that it is one of those songs that is all about melodic flow. It has some lovely lyrics, some glorious harmonies, but it is the tune that steals your heart.

Accordingly, we spent a good long while at the start of the day just focusing in on the melody in unison. At first sight, this looks like a bigger challenge for the harmony parts - after all they had just spent four weeks learning a completely different line - but in this arrangement, it also held some interesting challenges for the leads. Not only did they hand the melody over to other parts in places, but sometimes their part interpolated embellishments within the melodic line. Hence, it was useful for everybody to spend time focusing on the tune as written by the composer, so they knew when they were behaving melodically and when they were in a supporting role.

We spent some of the time on the melody with the lyrics, but we also spent quite a lot of it bubbling. This had all its usual benefits for the singers in terms of breath and resonance, but we were using it here to help their director Sara hear the detail within the melodic flow and make sure that there were no dips in the sound where she wanted the line connected up. If you do this with lyrics in, you can’t necessarily tell if a perceptible disconnection is due to the interruption of word sounds or whether there is a gap in the legato. Dealing with the pure sound flow of bubbling allows you to adjust your conducting so that it delivers the legato you want, making it much less likely that the word sounds will get in the way once you put them back in.

Interestingly, bubbling also delivered complete integrity of tonal centre. I hadn’t necessarily thought of this as being something we’d focus on - in some ways it feels a more abstract goal than the remit to get inside the new song - but in the context of the day, pitch retention asserted itself as a significant priority.

This was partly because the chorus clearly understood and loved the ballad already - there were a few details that needed untangling, but mostly they were well on track with it. If they carried on practising it as they were doing, they’d be heading in a very good direction. But by the same token, if they carried on practising it losing pitch, it would become harder and harder over time to sort that out. Now was the ideal moment to address that before the habit got practised in.

The question with pitch is always: is the issue with how people are using their voices, or how they’re using their ears? That bubbling delivered complete integrity suggests the former, but as we played with some listening games, it became clear that a stronger sense of tonal awareness was also going be useful. After an intensive period where we focused on just four chords, listening out for overtones, and feeling how the attention-shift changed the way people used their voices, I found myself thinking I could understand how Royce Ferguson had developed his methods. There is something pleasurably hypnotic about getting both ears and voice into that place, such that ‘just’ four chords feels rich and fascinating.

And once you’ve got people’s heads, and thus voices, into that place, the tone changes. It becomes clearer, freer, and staying in tune becomes natural and effortless. When you hear that particular quality of ring the sound, you know before you check the pitch that it’s going to be perfect.

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