A masterclass in ensemble technique for our Fellows from The King's Singers. 

ROBERT BROOKS (BARITONE)

Undoubtedly the greatest strength of the programme so far has been NYC’s willingness and ability to place at our disposal the expertise of so many of classical music’s elite. We had been given multiple solo singing masterclasses, stagecraft and auditioning workshops, and even conducting tuition. Now for our collective music-making we had an afternoon to work with The King’s Singers, a group that I had listened to and been aware of since childhood, and who are recognised internationally for their immaculate ensemble skills.

I therefore found the prospect of singing to them a slightly daunting one, but this was balanced by the very earnest and friendly way The King’s Singers proceeded to introduce themselves individually to us – taking some time to chat a bit and set us more at ease. After a slightly nervy sing-through of William Byrd’s ‘Tribue Domine’¸ they immediately set about honing our presentation, such as how we would hold our hands, where we would look, what angle we would set our music stands etc. This is perhaps trivial to the reader, but in reality it is a key aspect of minimising audience distraction, and maximising the impact of our singing. Just YouTube The King’s Singers, and note how the unity of their presentation amplifies the focus of their communication.

That being said, this was only the beginning of the work we needed to do. We quickly moved on to the delivery of the text, specifically the intention of the words we were singing, and the preceding breath matching that intention. It might sound obvious (there are few masterclasses I’ve seen where it hasn’t been brought up) but nevertheless we weren’t doing it as an octet, or at least not enough. I quickly came to realise that, if only personally, there was quite a significant barrier of self-consciousness to overcome that didn’t exist in my solo singing. It somehow felt ‘cringey’ to be emoting and communicating corporately to the same extent as I would on my own – and yet it’s what I encourage my choirs to do all the time. Luckily The King’s Singers were there to hold us to the highest standards, but I hope that we as a group will have the courage and energy to commit to it more, and to bring it up in future rehearsals.

Another aspect of the day that was challenging for me was the issue of tone production. The members of The King’s Singers made no bones of the fact that they were singing as six parts of one vocal instrument, and were not pursuing the same technical ideals of ‘bel canto’. A very interesting moment came when, after they all sang a passage that sounded warm and vibrant, one of the baritones sang the same part alone. He had been deliberately making quite a harsh and angular sound, but within the whole it had fitted and complemented the other voices. It reminded me of a masterclass I had seen with the excellent Quatuor Danel string quartet, where one of the violinists had said to a student, “you don’t need to make a complete sound by yourself, we will make the complete sound together.”

What I find difficult is that a similar vocal ‘incompleteness’ of production flies directly in the face of what I am desperately trying to master in my singing lessons and solo career. We singers, as both performer and instrument, cannot afford to be constantly sacrificing full efficiency of tone production in the same way that an instrumentalist can, i.e. a violin itself can’t get tense.  As a conductor, I see a divide between the choir stalls and the conservatoire – with singing teachers constantly trying to correct tensions and bad habits arising through regular ensemble singing, and conductors despairing of fabulous (non-choral) conservatoire singers who nonetheless can’t sight read well enough. This is by no means always the case, but it is a common occurrence.

But I have to admit that what The King’s Singers were recommending was working for us as an ensemble. There was one chord, for instance, that they asked us to sustain; after eliminating our vibrato, and balancing our vowels and pitches, the harmonics we were producing aligned and the entire sound was boosted. There was the most amazing physical sensation within my head as we shifted chord, and felt all the upper partials change correspondingly. It’s a phenomenon the barbershop community refer to as ‘lock and ring’, and it is the level of tuning every elite ensemble aspires toward.

I know, however, that my voice (or any human voice) cannot achieve its fullest freedom without being allowed to vibrate to its natural extent. We briefly experimented with letting vibration back in, but the chord became noticeably harder to tune, and we didn’t achieve the same amazing ring. It’s something I am now very interested to play with further, even if it is ultimately more difficult to accomplish.

Which (at long last, I know) brings me to the best part of the afternoon: the degree to which The King’s Singers encouraged us to experiment with our approaches. Instead of general ‘sing-throughs’, they exhorted us to take ideas and try them in detail several times, to really push the boundaries of the colour and variety we can achieve within one programme, or even one phrase. They showed us the discipline of rehearsal, and the relentless curiosity needed to go from being a group of good singers, to being an outstanding collective beyond the sum of our parts. ‘Bel canto’, for me, does not mean rigidity of style, it means freedom, it means flexibility, it means relaxation. It is now up to us to find our own balance between ensemble craft and our individual technique. But that’s great, there’s no point in being the Fellowship if we aren’t up for challenging ourselves every time we sing together.