Phil Wilcox
© Lara Xu
Phil Wilcox is an experienced choral director, currently leading the Fleet Singers, a community choir based in Gospel Oak, and several choirs for Music in Offices. A Royal Academy of Music graduate, he has sung as a baritone soloist for Buxton Festival Opera, Royal Shakespeare Company, Retrospect Opera, Merry Opera Company, XOGA, Opera on Location and Young Opera Venture and appears regularly on the oratorio and concert platform. He is the Learning and Participation Manager for Leeds Lieder and a freelance workshop leader.

When you sing, is your internal dialogue ticking over with helpful points like: “I hope I sing the right notes”, “Ooh, I shouldn’t have taken a breath there!”, “Eek, they’re a much better singer than me” and “Blimey, this is high!”? I’d like to try and convince you that, instead of worrying too much about getting the notes right, concerning yourself rather with communication and expression will lead to an all-round greater musical experience both for the listener and for you as performer.

It’s fine to acknowledge errors and misgivings while we practise, it’s part of how we improve, but dwelling on them certainly isn’t going to help correct something that’s already happened in a performance and may just lead to more mistakes. I’m going to take a guess (completely unproven by scientific research) and say that 99% of mistakes that happen within a choral performance, and feel utterly earth-shattering to the singer that made them, go completely unnoticed by the audience. There, I’ve said it. The long and short of it is: don’t worry about making mistakes. In worrying, you’re only going to hamper your own communicative ability and only give a “safe” performance without vulnerability and openness.

If, hypothetically, I had to choose between accuracy and expression from my choirs, I’d take expression every time. Don’t get me wrong, as singers we quite rightly spend a lot of time ensuring that we are prepared enough to give an accurate recreation of what the composer wrote. But I’d much rather experience a performance that was a little rough around the musical edges whilst brimming with character and expression than merely an accurate reading of the notes on the page with no feeling behind it. “I don’t mind fistfuls of wrong notes,” I’ll say to my choirs, “but please make them mean something”.

© David Beale | Unsplash
So, what should we be occupying our minds with when we sing? As a choral director, one of the single most effective reminders I can give my choirs is that they are human. Simple, right? As a human, you are capable of communication with other people that gives off energy, passion, nuance, enthusiasm, subtlety, colour, intelligence, animalism and style – all without thinking about it too much. You don’t think “angry” before screaming at a kleptomaniac bird that’s just made off with your punnet of chips on Sidmouth Seafront any more than you think “love” when you’re leaning in for a kiss with your partner or a welcoming hug with a family member. You’re just aware of those feelings and you probably won’t think to analyse them in the moment. Interestingly though, you can recall those feelings when you’re not feeling them. Imagine yourself right now on that first date, at the birth of your child, sharing a moment with your friends, winning the race, completing the task and eating those chips on the seafront: that’s happiness, right? That is, to me, what should be going through our heads when we perform: strong images, memories and impulses which make us feel something. These images are usually so much stronger when they include other people as well as yourself, as you can imagine those emotive feelings in communications with others.

And yet, given a text which is so full of meaning, story and character, which is set to music with defined rhythms and pitches, singers are so often in danger of merely chanting the words in time and at pitch without any meaning or creative inflection. Because of the detailed work that has been put in to learn the pitches and durations of each note, the words can cease to mean anything and just become sounds you regurgitate on the tune. You can tell when there’s frustration in someone’s voice without really knowing why. You can tell when they’re indifferent to their situation or passionate about something. In the same way, a choir which is singing with meaning and expression draws me in and just sounds better.

So, how do we achieve this? Unlike some of the formal elements of music-making and vocal technique (placement, breath flow, vowel modification, rhythmic precision, intonation etc.), this “sing with meaning” thing is very simple to say and paradoxically much harder to explain. It’s not a case of enacting a physical change – a lower jaw on this word, a rounder mouth shape for this note – or a vocal change – a little more head voice here, and so on. It is a case of remembering that you’re a human with something to communicate through words and music, and that you have people to communicate with: the audience, often via someone else, the conductor.

When rehearsing and working on music, try as soon as you can to make what you’re doing – be it learning a new melody, a harmony line or memorising words – a “right-brain” activity. Yes, do some intellectual, “left-brain” work on the text and intricacies of the music, study the score to squeeze as much as you can out of the material the composer has given you to work with, but eventually try and make this preparation a creative activity. Create and imagine the characters that are performing the piece; rewrite the lyrics in your own words; translate the text if it’s in a foreign language and write this into the score; practise conjuring up vivid images and scenes in your mind as you sing and continue to play with them to keep them active and fresh.

Practise speaking the words in rhythm still stressing the right syllables and important words, as you would in normal speech, and try to maintain interest throughout the text with an active imagination. When we sing, single words are often stretched out for far longer than we’d normally speak them, so it’s important that the interest is maintained right the way through the word. What thoughts do you use? Imagery like colours, people’s faces, scenes from a film or play, big gestures, physical sensations, and characters: sing your line through the eyes of a character from real life, film, book or of your own creation. This is a technique that I was taught by Alex Ashworth during my time at the Royal Academy of Music. It’s seemingly a very simple exercise – essentially, you’re just removing pitch and speaking long, slow words – but it’s incredibly difficult to really achieve and works as many wonders on choral singing as it does in solo singers. Physically what’s really happening is a raised soft palate and a utilisation of resonators in the face and the neck which gives a halo of upper resonance to the sound.

Perhaps my overall message on singing with meaning could be summed up rather bluntly: don’t be dull. Why just sing the right notes like a Play It Piano when you could really include your audience in an expressive moment like a communicative human. It’s much more interesting for an audience to watch as well as listen to and you’ll feed from their attention.

Phil Wilcox at the Leeds Lieder Education Concert 2018
© Jonathan Turner
A word on directing: creativity flourishes in a positive atmosphere. I don’t understand directors that shout at their choirs and orchestras. Enthusiastic encouragement, or a stern reminder of the timescale before the concert is one thing, but I can’t imagine what inspiration one hopes to encourage out of a group of musicians by making them feel uncomfortable, hard done by or just plain angry.

Moreover, to me, taking a rehearsal feels like I’m participating in a performance. I have the same ongoing feeling of whether a rehearsal is going well as I do when I’m performing in a concert or opera. Do I feel “in the groove” as a conductor performing, am I taking my audience (the choir) with me, are they are connecting with me? It’s a musical, rhythmic feeling because a good rehearsal has a pulse, a rhythm and structure, just like a piece of music. Also, like a piece of music, it can be intricately planned out to the moment or completely improvised just as successfully and, as in any performance, the musicians need to communicate together to achieve a cohesive act of creativity.