Performing means more than jazz hands

I am thrilled to announce a missive from our gracious leader Dom Stichbury today *bends knee to the floor, bows so deeply hips fall off*.

We had a fantastic workshop in a school gym on Saturday morning which took us off the usual track thanks to the amazing Katie Beard, an actress, choreographer and all-round theatrical goddess who had us smiling in minutes despite our chronic hangovers. Dom has written a great piece on what we learned from it, and what it means to sing in a group.

However the blurry pic is all his fault.

The Pop-Up Choir rehearsing with Katie Beard

Katie leading the Pop-Up Choir

Relationship, connection, eye contact, physical touch, communication, motivation, stillness, presence, sensitivity, gaze and awareness.This list of experiences wouldn’t be out of place on a leaflet advertising a relationship workshop or self development weekend, but these were the themes that The Pop-up Choir, sometimes unwittingly, were exploring in a performance coaching session led by actor and director Katie Beard.

The choir invited Katie along to lead their first Saturday morning workshop, which is part of a new regime that myself and the choir slowly moved towards implementing throughout the last term. The premise being more focused rehearsals, more self-sufficiency – with choir members experimenting with leadership roles, and an occasional Saturday extended rehearsal. It is no coincidence that these themes arose. How we relate is at the centre of a performer’s world; the relationship with oneself, the audience, our fellow performers and the material at hand.

From the outset of the session the choir found itself in unusual territory. A new space to rehearse in and explore (courtesy of alto 1 Lisa Gray’s primary school…thanks Lisa), a new leader to work with, a new time of day to be finding focus and new configurations to experience each other in, for example moving around the space, reacting to each other and getting entangled in a physical closeness with each other that the Alto 1s could only ever dream of!

Why do we sing every week? It can’t just be the beer

The choir was putty in Katie’s hands as she encouraged them to reflect on why they were even in the group. What, apart from the nice boozer to rehearse in, motivated them to come to rehearsal each week? How committed do you feel to the choir when you perform? Do you act aloof to the audience and disengage so you can coolly claim to not be that ‘into it’ in case your performance didn’t go down well with your mates?

These psychological probings are essential to help a person understand why they’re even there (in a choir, in a job, in a relationship). Singers who do not perform regularly or haven’t had much performance training can easily fall into a trap of unworthiness, and the process of undoing that requires a combination of confidence building, undoing a cultural sense of who’s entitled/allowed to do this/do that and inspiring leadership.

A brief digression. Although our prevailing culture usually insists, singing and music making shouldn’t always be about performing and I feel strongly that it needn’t always be. This is nothing new to many music educators and all ethnomusicologists, but to the general public I detect a feeling of ‘them and us’ exists. Studies producing evidence of the physical and psychological benefits that group singing brings, irrespective of an audience’s presence, have been popping up in the broadsheets’ feature and editorial content for the last decade or so.

Do you have to perform to sing?

Different cultures have a different concept of musical performance, for some of those cultures music and singing is a ritual, a group activity integrated into their life. The Western music tradition and it’s rooted pedagogy creates a deep divide between those who consume music and those who deliver music. It is goal orientated rather than experience orientated. “That makes sense,” I hear you say. You don’t want to hear the local ‘Can’t Sing Won’t Sing’ group have a go at Rachmaninov’s Vespers, but you might take great delight in their rendition of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. You could be as moved through their bravery and innocence as you could be by the depth of complexity and beautifully intonated singing that a trained group might bring to the Russian’s great work.

It will always be that some would probably be better off expressing themselves through other art forms no matter how much they try to develop their musicality and that is the cruelty of the cards we are dealt. Even still they could derive personal benefit from engaging in musical activity if the worry of how ‘good’ they were wasn’t towering over them, indeed this could even be one barrier to their progression.

As we are products of our culture, where excellence in performance is often heralded as the end goal, the destination to scramble towards, it will be in the challenge of performance training that we’ll encounter many demons, which are always worth dismantling (Am I good enough? Are they better than me? Can I do it? I believe these are as much cultural as they are human).

This is why some of the the themes that Katie brought to Saturday’s workshop felt ripe for developing Pop-up Choir’s performance ethos, but also building individual’s confidence and worthiness of the what they and the group can offer. Whilst performance isn’t always useful for some engaging in music making, ironically because of the cultural norm for ‘trained others’ to be the performers, it is for many an essential act of sharing, showing oneself, discipline, communication and personal development.

Getting it right

Luckily Pop-up make a great sound and many of the battles have been won already for this great little group, but the magic really happens when they’re focused, attuned to their bodies, their minds, to each other and to an audience. This was the state they found themselves in at the end of Katie’s workshop. They had developed and moved on; they had learnt something new about themselves and their relationship to the group. Their singing was the better for it. The challenge is getting back to that place again and again and again – on demand.

How you deal with repetition as a musician and performer is the difference between a flat ‘been here before’ performance to delivering something with the awareness that what you are sharing is an unfolding experience for your audience. Repetition specifically in repertoire is one thing, but how about the repetition of where you rehearse and who you rehearse with? Can you find the same focus and freshness in a space that you’ve got pissed in, flirted in, felt uncomfortable in, cried in, felt shameful in?

It wasn’t all philosophy and psychology, in fact that’s just my own obsession. Katie has started us on a road of focus, appropriate and tasteful choreography and reflection.

A big thank you to Katie and Pop-up for embracing the new.

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