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Saturday 11 October 2008


British Voice Association event report by Nicola Harrison

Despite the small numbers – or perhaps because of them – this was an outstanding day in which ideas flowed and all participants were fully engaged and present. This can only have been due to the outstanding quality of the speakers.

Speak the Song, I Prithee...

The day began with Peter Carey's progressive warm-ups. These used aspects of physical movement to embody the voice. Once we had warmed the muscles, we lay on the floor and imagined we had one, then two, and then several mouths around our bodies through which to send sound. This brought about a strong connection between the sound and the whole body. There then followed a range of tongue, lip and consonant exercises to free up the face, jaw and neck muscles.

Now thoroughly warmed up, we moved on to the text; three excerpts from Shakespeare's plays. We each selected our favourite and then 'embodied' the text through quite expansive physical movement. After we had repeated and enacted the excerpts to ourselves several times in different ways, we then presented our excerpt to the group. The effect was striking. By being physically present, we were able to touch the true meaning and atmosphere of the piece.

Then came Singing the Text, where Gillyanne Kayes played us a song without words, and invited us, without giving any context, to guess what the song was about. We did quite well, here, and came up with a variety of interpretations that shed a lot of light on the song.

The next step was to present us with the words of the song – My Own Space (The Act, Ebb and Kander,1977), which we read aloud to get a sense of the shape and meaning. Despite their repetitive nature and seeming simplicity, there were deeper meanings revealed, and a growing sub-text that became even more apparent in the light of the accompaniment.

And so we came to the printed music, where a more complex relationship between the music and the text was revealed. We sang this through several times, each time with more meaning laid bare, and by the end of the session we were finding our own way through timing, breaths and pauses, and revealing our own emotional response to the song.

After lunch came Mel Churcher's take on the fascinating relationship of text to song in Getting Behind the Text. Her years of work helping singers find their speaking voice brought us fresh warm up ideas and exercises that explored new areas of the speaking voice. We found many ways of saying Mary had a little lamb and found that vowels were driven by emotion, while consonants were more will-driven.

Then we looked at a harrowing piece from O what a Lovely War. We shared the reading, each taking a line, and found, through movement, how rhythm and punctuation were used to create drama and emotional intensity. Then we went into character pairs and worked through other texts to explore how different styles of writing put different demands on the speaker. All of these exercises emphasised the very important point that any speaking part must be in the moment. To be real it has to be actual.

Finally we had great fun with Stuart Barr in Ensemble and Solo Singing in Practice. This took the form of a mock-rehearsal in which we were given two texts to explore – The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (Sweeney Todd, Sondheim, 1979) and Seasons of Love (Rent, Larson, 1996). Most of the session was spent on the splendid prologue to Sweeney Todd, in which each of us took a line – sang it, then spoke it to music and then sang it again. We had to imagine what kind of character we were, to whom we were speaking, what we were telling them and why.

As we chose our roles, it seemed that pretty much everyone wanted to be a prostitute (...don't know what that says about the BVA!), but in the end the roles were equally shared between a landlady, a baker, a flower seller, a prostitute and a pall-bearer (me). Once we got into character, we found that we reacted differently to the news of the Demon Barber's grisley dealings, and as we passed the story between us, we became increasingly absorbed in telling/singing the story.

The second piece was quite different in style and period, introducing simple harmony and unexpected rhythms that proved a bit of a challenge for both actors and singers in different ways.

Sue Anderson closed the session with a debate around the topics of the day. The unanimous verdict was that it had been a tremendous experience, provoking much discussion, a stimulating exchange of ideas, and many thoughts for the future.

Thank you to all involved for bringing us such an outstanding event.



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