Just Voices

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Saturday brought me a day-trip to Bromley to work with Just Voices, a women’s a cappella group. There were a few familiar faces of people I’d met in other choruses – not least their director Cathy Davies who I’ve most recently seen in Strictly A Cappella and Frisson - but mostly these were new friends waiting to happen. So I was particularly pleased to receive the feedback that I ‘wasn’t as scary as some people’. If I need a new strapline, that one’s certainly on the shortlist.

The afternoon fell into two major themed areas. We started out with a music-focus, delving into the detail of the songs, and engaging with different elements in response to the needs of the moment.

We considered rhythmic flow, exploring how finding the right kind of lilt not only helps keep all the parts coordinated, but brings out shape and meaning in the lyric and melody. We looked at the relationship between musical texture and expressive register, and how this maps onto the meaning of the lyric. We explored how energising consonants raises the emotional temperature in a text (Psalm 23) that may be so familiar to an audience that they have lost touch with its depths.

Duetting yielded its reliably holistic rewards: not just cleaning up technical details of vowel shape and consonant placement, but bringing into focus the gentle dissonances that add emotional complexity to Howard Goodall’s melodically-accessible setting.

During the later part of the afternoon, we found ourselves increasingly dealing with voice rather than musical detail. Everyone was already equipped with bottles/glasses and straws from the warm-up, so we got these out again to water-bubble through an entire song. Like lip-trill bubbling, this is a great way to work on a deep-seated, consistent breath flow, and it’s even better than lip-trills for encouraging efficient use of air. You do need to have paper towels on hand, though, as people get their water levels and depth of straw insertion calibrated.

We also spent some time with the lip-trill bubble, helping people who were struggling with embouchure to refine their technique. There is a bit of a knack to it, and if you haven’t found the knack it feels dispiritingly difficult. But once you’re on the case, it just needs practice to become fluent. You have to give yourself permission to be a not very good at it for a while first, though – something that adult learners can be unnecessarily hard on themselves about! The great news is that the intermittent successes of your work-in-progress are still doing great things for your voice.

These great things include a better legato, a freer production and both added brightness and richness of tone. But they only come with a decent stint of bubbling – a token effort won’t work the magic. So we toggled a whole song between a brrr and vvv sound to get this extended engagement whilst still managing the stamina. The great thing about the toggle switch as an exercise is that it leaves the changes of state in the hands of the singers, so the pacing of the changes is negotiated in real time amongst those who have the most direct opinions about when they need to change.

We ended with a plenary discussion, which covered a noticeably wider range of subjects than coaching-day debrief sessions often do. (I’m not entirely sure why that would be – possibly because we worked for 4 ½ hours rather than a whole day people had more brain left to generate questions and comments.) One of the subjects that came up was pitch retention, and in particular how valuable it is to address this while first learning a song.

Mostly if people drop in pitch, it’s because they have practised doing so, and two of the main causes of loss of tonal centre in the first case – insufficient support and lack of confidence – are both most likely to occur at the earlier stages of learning a song. Hence, if you can integrate vocal techniques like bubbling and musical techniques like singing in different keys with the initial learning process, you can save yourself the task of having to unlearn droopy habits at a later date.

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