The Red Rosettes, Exploring the Song

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Last night was the first of two consecutive trips north-west, this one to coach the Red Rosettes in Preston. Much of the evening was dedicated to bringing out the expressive shape of a show-piece they are currently learning. But we also spent some time on the song they had used for a recent Learn to Sing course in order that their new recruits could have their first experience of being coached.

Chatting to a couple of these singers afterwards gave an interesting insight into what this experience was like for them. One spoke of the way she found it initially very challenging as it was asking her to let go of the way she had learned to do things. I thought this was a beautifully simple and to-the-point way of articulating that process of moving up from the basic operations of a new skill. Fortunately she seemed ready to take on the challenge and looked all lit up with that glow you get from achieving something new.

The evening was notable for the way nearly all our work focused on musical elements - melodic flow, rhythm, form - rather than the technical details of execution. Even when we did focus in on a vocal issue, it was in the context of a particular musical event, such as keeping the vowel placement forward when the melody dipped downwards. Of course there were lots of adjustments to how the singers were performing, but nearly all were approached through exploring expressive purpose - most of the evening was dedicated to developing the Communicator rather than the Manager.

I think this was a function of two things. On one hand, the chorus have done a lot of work on developing their singing technique over the last few years, and already have a lot of well-embedded good habits. On the other, both songs we worked on are fairly recent additions to the repertoire and as yet relatively undeveloped. So the strongly musical focus emerged from a combination of the needs of the singers and the needs of the music.

(Interestingly, though, looking back on my report from my last visit to the Red Rosettes last summer, I had very similar comments. I think it might also therefore be a characteristic of our coach-chorus relationship.)

One technique I always enjoy for the thoughtful responses it elicits is to ask singers to put themselves in the shoes of the composer and/or arranger. Why would someone write it like that? Of course we don't actually know what they were thinking (as an arranger myself, I know that I am only over intermittently conscious of the reasons behind my musical decisions), but asking the question invariably makes the music easier to perform. Instead of simply being obedient to what's written, the performers start to feel as if they are in on the creative process.

Another favourite technique is duetting parts, and last night we used this in a very specific way as a means to help the singers understand the change I was asking them to make. There was a passage with some very quick words which needed more articulation to make the words fully comprehensible. Simply asking for more energy in the word sounds only produced the desired result from a handful of the singers.

So we had pairs of parts sing the passage with feedback from the others until it was clear that people were hearing the difference between the glossed-over and the enunciated versions. Once the distinction was grasped, the execution followed. Perception is a pre-requisite for technique.

In a conversation at the end of the evening, the chorus's director made a comment to one of the singers that they had 'only got good enough to have Liz coach us in the last couple of years'. I'd just like to say that, whilst this is very flattering, and of course I love working with groups that have well-developed skills, I'm also very happy to work with people at the early stages of development. I felt a little wistful that people might choose not to book me because they don't feel they're good enough.

Of course there may be all kinds of reasons you choose not to book me, but I think that one is doing yourself a disservice. You only get to a level of advanced skills by going through the work-in-progress development that underpins them, and you are entitled to ask for support at every stage of that journey.

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