Welwyn Once Again

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welwynsep11On Tuesday evening I returned to work with Welwyn Harmony, whom I had last coached back in June. It was cheering to see that they had retained a lot of the things we had worked on last time, and indeed that they were generally singing with more freedom and resonance most of the time. Helpfully, they’d sent me some recordings from the previous two rehearsals, so I was able to plan not only specific areas for coaching, but also – since they had asked me to take a vocal warm-up – devise preparatory work to introduce some specific elements we would be working on.

The work was significantly more detailed this time than last, as befits a more developed phase in the rehearsal process. In June we were looking at big-picture dimensions of rhythmic characterisation, melodic behaviour and airflow. These themes arose again on Tuesday, but usually in focusing in on specific passages or moments, to integrate them into a broadly successful approach to the songs.

For instance, the ‘ee’ vowel needed opening up, so in the warm-up we played with space between the back teeth, the sense of a small damson in the mouth (I do like a seasonal metaphor), and imagining a trap door opening up in the back of the head to let the sound out. These rather diverse sets of imagery coalesced later on into a feeling of sweeping a long and glossy head of hair forward up and forward from the neck, which not only opened up the vowel, but harmonised with an emotional world of joy and abandon flowing through the phrase. It’s always nice when you don’t have to choose between focus on technical control or musical expression.

Towards the end of the evening we ran a short experiment with their co-director, Viv. She is an experienced singer, but the step into directing is a relatively recent one, and while her confidence and fluency is growing rapidly it all still feels quite new to her. This was manifesting in a degree of over-eagerness in her directing – working hard to make sure she gave the chorus every cue they could possibly need. I noticed after a while that she had a tendency to lean forward whenever she was worried.

Now, telling someone not to stand straighter is good advice, but hard to follow when your entire attention is taken up with helping singers through a particular passage. So I thought we’d try to address it by finding something to reduce the anxiety instead, and suggested she directed with her eyes closed. One the face of it, this looks like bad advice (all the literature is full of the importance of eye contact!), but it produced some rather interesting results.

First off, it pretty much cured the tendency to lean forward (not entirely, but to the extent that you wouldn’t identify it any more as a primary element of technique to work on). And this in turn elicited a much freer, more resonant tone from the singers – who commented that they found the performance smoother this way. Cutting off visual input also allowed Viv to hear more, which then allowed her to gain a more precise control over details of synchronisation.

This was essentially an exercise in trust. Viv needed to trust the singers to stay with her even when she wasn’t consciously ‘broadcasting’ the whole performance to them. She also needed to trust herself to be able to immerse herself in the music and guide it rather than pushing it. By closing off eye contact, she closed off a major source of self-consciousness and found a space for ear contact instead. And she also needed to know that the singers trust her; they are happy that the music is in good hands.

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