Preparing for Llangollen with Affinity Show Choir

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The obligatory warm-up shot...The obligatory warm-up shot...

Sunday took me up to Stockport to help Affinity Show Choir in their preparations for the Llangollen Interntational Eisteddfod next month. (After all these years, I still take a couple of attempts to figure out where the double d goes.) They are stretching themselves by entering two quite different choral classes, one in which they can showcase their usual diet of a cappella and barbershop repertoire, and another which takes them into more classical choral territory.

This is a great plan, from several perspectives. From a choir development perspective, it gives a purpose and structure to a project to learn music you might not otherwise engage with, offering a defined performance occasion which offers feedback and the opportunity to hear the performances of others who sing this same kind of music. From a sense-of-occasion perspective, it makes more use of the time and expense of the trip and makes you feel you’ve participated fully in the event, not just popped in for a visit.

As it turns out, one class is right at the start of the day, the other lateish in the afternoon, so it will be a long day for them. Whilst this gives some challenges in planning and pacing to make sure everyone feels ready for each performance, it does make it a proper day out, with a real chance to appreciate the full Llangollen experience. With a lot of new singers in the choir who have never been to this event before, experiencing the atmosphere of fellowship and creativity is as important a part of the project as the chance to perform on that marvellous stage.

With just 3 weeks to go, the task was polishing – bringing out colour and detail with a focus on audience experience. As you get close to performance time, you really don’t want to be thinking too much about technical details, since what’s in your mind shows in your face, and your audience are more interested in the story-telling than in your technique. So we only looked at technique in a couple of places where people’s faces and voices suggested they had doubts about how they were managing certain moments.

(My friend Alison came out with a wonderful phrase recently about technique being her ‘place of safety’. I have it on my may-blog-about pile because I find it so intriguing. But for now I’ll just note this as an example – people worry less when they know they can do something at will to make the music sound better.)

One theme that came out repeatedly was increasing the awareness between the parts of what each other were doing. In some of the more harmonic textures, we had the people singing the melody stop and listen to the other parts for a couple of passages to give them a better concept of the overall texture. When we put it all back together again, this gave a more cohesive feel to the chords – people balance intuitively when they have had space to consider the whole.

We also spent some time bringing out the detail in the accompanying parts to a Deke Sharon arrangement. There are lots of subtle moments in there that don’t want to distract from the soloist, but add colour and interest if they are pointed up. Having singers notice the moments in their own part was easy – the trickier bit was helping them identify when others had something interesting going on.

We addressed this with a technique which, unlike the details, isn’t subtle, but is really good for clarity. Any time anybody thought they were singing an interesting bit, they should throw their arms out wide so that everybody else would know to pay attention to them. Understandably, at first people felt a bit inhibited doing this, until we articulated a key point: If you throw your arms out and nobody else does, you win, as this means you’ve found some musical interest that nobody else has noticed.

We also did some work on explicit handing over between parts when the melodic interest passes around. Everyone found it easy to bring out their own melodic passages using vocal colour, but to let go of that ‘I am the centre of the universe’ sound, you need to know who to hand it over to. Using gesture to pass musical interest around helps everyone cooperate in managing musical attention.

And of course the whole point of increasing the singers’ awareness of what each other are doing is to enhance the audience’s experience. Just as what is in your head shows in your face, what you are hearing as you sing determines what your listeners can hear in your performance. Which means, fortunately, that the more interesting and pleasurable a time you are having as a performer, the better the experience you are giving to others.

The performance next month will be Lesley Carson’s last before retiring as director. So if you are at Llangollen and see her, please congratulate her not just for the days’ performances, but for all her efforts over the years in making sure there is always plenty of singing going on.

"You win!"

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