Voice and Improv

Ahead of her upcoming course of the same name, Aisha Ali talks about her journey with singing, improv and fooling, and what’s inspired her to make the course.

I have sung for as long as I can remember. From singing along with favourite jingles (do you remember those days? “If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit join our club!”) to making up songs as I went about my day. It was a way I could connect with myself, my feelings, my creative self and it was integral to my life, which is why it’s so strange that there was such a large gap where it all just stopped. Sure, I sang in the shower, along to my mixtapes/CDs and at rare nights of karaoke but I was led to believe that while “adulting” I had to let go of the idea that singing was important to me and deserved time and attention.

Fast forward to my 30s, when I moved to Bristol and began my journey back to discovering my voice through singing with choirs, then in theatre shows and eventually in my own performances, both as set songs and through Vocal Improv, sometimes called CVI (Collaborative Vocal Improv) a tradition passed down as part of, amongst others’, Bobby McFerrin’s legacy. Each of those things helped me in different ways – singing in choir taught me about blending voices and close vocal harmony, while singing in theatre shows taught me about how to sing in scenes whilst acting and how to perform songs without a conductor. Putting songs into my own performances taught me about freedom to make it sound how I liked and then including audience participation into it as a feature, which was so magical. It really was a labour of love!

When I got to learning about Vocal Improv, I had already been doing fooling for quite some years. Fooling, a distant cousin of clowning, is about being in the moment and playing/performing from where you are. You go onto the stage on your own with no material and a 20 min slot and see what happens! It can be stories, characters, confessions, movement, songs or any number of things and you don’t know what will happen til you’re out there. It works on the premise that we have many selves or “masks” and different masks come out to play depending on what is happening. Trust me when I say no amount of “planning” helps because when you get on that stage, your body takes over and the masks have a life of their own! I love the aliveness, the rawness, the potential, the deep listening and the utter delight/sheer terror/complete vulnerability it inevitably brings – you really get to see the human condition on the stage and it’s hugely connecting. I thought CVI would be the same but it seemed to be a slightly different flavour – the tendency was to treat it almost like a spiritual practise in which you channel the divine, where the divine was profound and serious and that didn’t really work for me – where was the room for silliness, irreverence and a more playful attitude? Are they not divine?

Learning the structures and tools to enable groups of vocalists to make music together entirely accapella was wonderful and I had lots of amazing experiences but for me, something was missing. There was a real lack of diversity of the voices in the room and I wasn’t a fan of how I had been facilitated. The thing about improv is, you’re taking risks to show yourself and it’s hugely exposing so you need to feel really safe in order to do that. I had experienced that in my fooling with the wonderful Holly Stoppit as a really phenomenal director but not vocally. I really wanted to be able to explore my own voice and see what it could do.

Then one day, I was performing in Shangri-La at Glastonbury Festival at a late night show called “Woke Date” that had a set back story and characters but the show itself was improvised and had audience participation. In it, “Chilla Black” had taken some Ayahuasca and had her 3rd eye opened so that she could remake her show whilst being “woke”. My character was called Aretha Frank and always spoke the truth but also sang a song about how the word “woke” had been culturally appropriated. When I was singing, I didn’t feel nervous or worried about singing alone on a stage, which I normally would have because sometimes my nerves meant my voice didn’t always come out how I wanted it to. This time was really different – I was channeling my inner Diva, it wasn’t me, it was a mask! It felt totally different in my body and I found a freedom and quality in my voice I had never experienced before.

In fooling, obviously your mask could sing if it felt moved to but I had never thought about finding a mask and then singing from that place deliberately, which was obvious after I had thought about it! After that performance I felt moved to delve into my voice in this way in my own practise. I tried archetypes, emotions, physicality to find different parts of myself and then see how they changed my voice and it was a really fantastic exploration. The devil archetype with the mantra “I own everything”, something I’d rarely invoke as myself, was particularly fun!

One of the things that really bothered me in CVI was the competitive nature of it and how I felt judged as being “good” or “bad” at singing. It obviously felt amazing being one of the “good” ones but left little room for the “bad” ones to thrive and for me, I just wanted to study the form and sing with others without too much judgement beyond – “what did we like about that piece we created together?” Our voices are so personal and we often carry a lot of baggage around them and I wanted to create a space where people could try things out and not be too focussed on outcome but the process itself. Even Bobby McFerrin describes a time when he got too self-conscious to sing in front of others as he got really obsessed with being “original” in his singing style and it was a huge hindrance.

That’s what led me to create this 6 week course! I really want it to be a space where people feel free to try things, take risks and have the freedom to participate in the way that feels good to them whilst supporting each other and throwing away the pressure of being “good”.  There will be a focus on exploring our voices through different angles but also simple structures so we can sing together as a group. The BIT feels like the perfect place to do it because our values and ideas around well-held spaces align so much to allow people to take risks on their terms and I’m really looking forward to the group process in improvised vocal exploration!

Aisha’s course, ‘Voice & Improv’ is running on Tuesdays from 11th January – 15th February

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