Back in Person with Surrey Harmony

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How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?

Well, that was a treat! Wednesday saw my first live coaching visit since last Spring. It was Surrey Harmony, down in Coulsdon, whom I’d not worked with for 6 years or so. They had two new songs just off the copy, one of which I had arranged for them, and were ready to get their teeth into bringing the music to life.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how refreshing it is for an ensemble to have a different consciousness in the room, hearing new things, imagining different possibilities from the ones they are used to. It is equally refreshing for the coach to hear different voices, to diagnose different strengths and needs; these encounters stimulate the creativity in ways that your regular rehearsal can’t. The familiarity of a long-term working relationship brings the opportunity to build, but by definition doesn’t force you to listen and think afresh in the same way as you have to when faced with the unfamiliar.

It is the diagnostic process that drives creative coaching. You hear something that the music needs, and that the singers will be perfectly capable of delivering, if you can only work out what is getting in the way.

One particularly rewarding example was a series of five syllables that needed more flow, they were coming out a bit blocky and separate. It’s not that Surrey Harmony can’t do joined-up singing (they do a lot of it), so why were they tripping over this moment? A shift in emphasis to give a sense of arrival on the last word of the sentence rather than the first freed this up nicely.

And then in turn, this revealed that actually shaping the metre like this overall, with the main pulse on the 3rd beat of the bar, suddenly made the whole thing easier to sing. It brought out internal rhymes, made embellishments make sense, highlighted interesting chords without effort. It was so obvious in retrospect – although the fact that you usually hear the song sung with a substantial 1st-beat accent had clearly been an obstacle to its discovery.

Another minor epiphany came when we were working on my arrangement, sculpting its emotional shape over a long-term arc. The escalation of emotional stakes had been proceeding nicely, but as the song shifted a gear towards the central build, the leads were producing a tone that was too fragile, too sensitive for the context. It was a beautiful tone, and one that would be needed elsewhere in the song, but lacked the fire and implacability that verse needed.

It turned out that the issue was a kind of misdirection from the lyric. The words at that point (which only the leads had, so the other parts weren’t going through this) were ‘Did you come here for forgiveness?’ The leads were responding to the word forgiveness in their vocal tone, allowing it to soften the timbre. However, in the wider context, the meaning of that verse is about anything but forgiveness – the question they sing has the rhetorical force of negation - ‘You’ve got a nerve to even imagine I could forgive you!’ – the idea of forgiveness serves only to inflame anger at this point in the narrative.

Once we had worked through this dramatic context, the tone was transformed. We summarised this process as: don't sing the words, sing the idea. Interestingly, this was a moment that we could have approached through vocal technique, asking for a tighter adduction between the vocal folds and an increase in twang, but that would have left the singers’ heads full of physiology rather than expressive intent. Thinking about story and characterisation produced the vocal results intuitively, and in a way that they won’t have to consciously try to remember: what you understand, you don’t forget.

I’d also like to share a lovely – and seasonally apt - notion from chorus director Lorraine Thomas about coaching relationships. She remarked that they are like conkers: just as when you win a game of conkers, you get all the previous wins of your opponent’s conker added to your conker’s score, when you invite a coach to work with you, you also get the benefit of all the people who have coached them. As I sit here feeling energised by my evening with Surrey Harmony, I’d add that you also get the benefit of everyone they have coached; my idea of a good coaching session is one where everyone comes away a better musician, coach and ensemble alike.

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