Onstage 3, 2, 1 and go!
by Stephen Deazley, Artistic Director ~ Aug 2020
Monday evening rehearsals at the Usher Hall with our 300-strong community choir are performance events in their own right. There’s no getting away from the countdown to 7pm as people file into seats, reconnect with friends, pick up new music at the door, shake the weather from their boots and settle in for two hours of singing.
The rehearsals are performative partly because of the setting – grand and generous in scale it makes you up your game – but also because of the nature of inclusive community focused singing, which places high value not just on the final product but on the quality of the learning process and the potential to create and share meaningful in-the-moment experiences. We aspire for each rehearsal to be joyful, welcoming, supportive and positive, where active participation is encouraged, valued and celebrated, not just in the concert but every time we meet.
‘Reading and responding to the room’ is a phrase often used to describe the art of the facilitator. The shape of our ‘room’ is the stage of the Usher Hall and our singers bring this room to life every week. Is it possible to attend to the needs of 300 people at the same time, individually and collectively? Only a megalomaniac would say yes! So no, not all the time, but that is the focus and the goal, the sharp end of the facilitator’s art.
Musical skills aside, I’ve learned over time that paying attention to what is needed in the moment is the foundation of my practice. Sometimes it’s just one person that needs a human connection with eye contact, a smile or a shift of focus, other times it’s the whole shebang, seizing and holding the moment when everyone suddenly and collectively joins together. Part of my job is to spot where it can happen, when it’s needed, when to step up, when to provoke, how to open the doors to deeper social and emotional connections delivered through music, lyric and song, but more importantly, through the collective commitment brought to the act and art of singing together, of breathing together.
So then, what happens when the room actually disappears? When people dissolve from one beautifully organic physical sonic mass into separate regular sized boxes across a computer screen, when it’s impossible to see everyone at the same time, when you can’t hear how people are responding to your suggestions and to your voice. What happens when the foundation of your practice simply dissolves? You panic.
You panic for a while and then you remember the Why and get on with it. We took six weeks from the start of lockdown to work out how we, as a team, might respond to the challenges – I can’t hear you and you can’t hear each other is tricky business for a choir. We can’t bring people’s voices together in real time on a screen. The deep satisfaction and joy of singing within a glorious harmony and the sense of being part of something bigger must then come from somewhere else, if at all.
The room is utterly transformed – it’s not the same, so the experience can’t be the same. What then do we do?
Six weeks of researching which digital platforms to use, how to ensure privacy, security and protect personal data, how to support people with less experience navigating an online world of log-ins, web links and mute buttons. We followed the zeitgeist to Zoom of course, rapidly learning its limitations and how to get the best out of it, combining this with live-streaming broadcasts on YouTube. We’re all talking with new-found words, discovering the trials of out of date operating systems and learning about new syndromes such as screen fatigue. There are also personal challenges in each of our lockdown experiences that need to be acknowledged and given space.
Newly arranged songs are recorded in audio and video formats with scrolling lyrics and downloadable backing tracks, mixed in stereo with separate voice parts. Wearing headphones, you can then be enveloped in a harmonic sound world – people are singing with and around you; it’s an approximation of a physical social choir experience. Video tutorials are made for each section of the choir, watchable as many times as you need to learn your part. We make films with four virtual conductors side by side: Sally, me, me, Sally (our choir trainee), set out as our voice parts would be in the Usher Hall in four-part harmony. How the parts fit together can now be seen and heard. It takes the collective efforts of the whole team to pull it off, with a lot of discussion, a lot of feedback from our choir members, and quite a bit of frustration along the way.
The song choices, like past Love Music programmes, are typically atypical – Bob Dylan, an American Baptist hymn, Erasure and a French carol reset with English words, and a wee dance chart for those who want to rock out in their living room created for us by choreographer Nathan Clarke from his lockdown home in Benidorm.
In this strange world of isolation and ‘slippy’ time there is plenty to do, to watch, listen, learn and rehearse on your own, freedom to join the live interactive sessions on a Monday at 7pm, or to catch up later when it suits, to dress up and film your version of the dance chart (which the team had a go at with hilariously mixed results), to record your own voice and send it off to be mixed together with everyone else’s. We also made our first socially distanced recording – How Can I Keep From Singing Video.
This is a leap of faith for many of our singers, an exercise in trust, hearing and accepting your voice as it is, and letting go. We do this in live choir settings all the time, we let our voice become subsumed by something greater, but we never do it from such raw and intimate beginnings when the time lag between your voice emerging and the resulting choir sound coming back at you is so expansive.
If I thought the Usher Hall sessions were performative that’s nothing compared to this new experiment – real time broadcasting from my front room with scores on screens, multiple windows opened with links to web resources, PDFs, pictures, lyric sheets, script prompts and rehearsal plans, live piano links and also hosting guest artists beaming in from another country.
Before each session I run a virtual rehearsal on my own. I teach a line and then imagine, creatively, what needs attention. Is it the breath before you sing, the articulation of a word, an unusual interval in the tune?
“Take care of these things”, I say, and “now let’s try it again”.
Bit by bit, I plot out a rehearsal and an imagined musical response from the choir. I couldn’t do this if I didn’t know who they are collectively, what they can achieve and where they need support. The sessions are scripted – not word for word – made possible because of our history of shared experiences. I know them and they know me. There is confidence in this knowledge.
We laughed a lot. We sang a lot. We danced a bit. Actually, we danced a lot! We encouraged each other and took risks, and the ‘room’ began to emerge – it’s not fully formed, it’s definitely not the same, but it did show itself on occasion. And, perhaps obviously, the room does not exist until people are in it, on their feet, on their sofa, in their kitchens with their cats, smiling, cheering, waving, singing and sharing. People are adaptable and resilient in extraordinary ways; we learned a lot together. More on this in the next blog.
It’s 7pm, we’re live, 3, 2, 1 and go!