Gesture Height and Centre of Gravity

When teaching choral conducting we generally encourage people to use a gesture space in which their ictus lands not too far above their belly-button, as this tends to facilitate a deeper-seated breath in the singers. But sometimes the physical circumstances of your performing environment necessitate a higher gesture in order for it to be seen, and the question then becomes: how do you prevent this having a negative impact on vocal production?

This post was inspired by watching a video of someone who was managing this well.

On Conducting and Emotion

I had a really interesting conversation recently with a conductor I’ve been working with about the conductor’s experience of musical emotion. He was reflecting on how he feels all the music the conducts – and ‘still feels’ it in the case of very familiar repertoire – and was wondering to what extent he should allow himself to experience that while conducting. On one hand, the whole point of so much music is to shape our feelings, but on the other he didn’t want to be self-indulgent.

You won’t be surprised to know that from a standing start, I was all for allowing himself to connect emotionally with the music. The reason we started doing this and keep doing it, the reason the singers participate, the reason that listeners value what we do is this connection. Music offers a way to access rich and varied emotional landscapes that bind us together in shared experiences. Those leading the creation of those experiences both deserve and have an obligation to participate in them.

Inside the Arranging Process with Cheshire Chord Company

CCCmar21On Thursday evening I joined the Cheshire Chord Company to offer a presentation on the arranging process, walking through some of the practical and artistic decisions that inform how a chart takes shape. As ever with these kinds of events, I came away far more interested in the questions than they were asking than what I had presented – after all, I knew what I was going to say in advance as I’d prepared it, but the questions take the conversation into all kinds of interesting places that I’d not necessarily anticipated.

One question that I’m often asked and find almost impossible to answer is what is my favourite chart. I’m generally poor at picking favourites of anything, but I think the reason it is particularly hard with arrangements is that every time I am arranging something for someone, for them it is their special thing. So, for the duration of the time I’m working on it, it is my special thing too. If I want the groups I arrange for to be delighted with their music, I can’t approach it as ‘just another chart’.

Distraction Techniques in the Choral Rehearsal

A recurrent theme in the 3rd and 4th books of the Hitchhiker Trilogy is the technique of how to fly: you throw yourself at the ground, and miss. Obviously, the throwing bit is easy enough; the knack is to get sufficiently distracted during the brief moment before you hit the ground that you forget to finish the process. This leaves you suspended in the air, and the then trick for staying there, and indeed for swooping around and travelling about the place by flight, is not to think too hard about what you are doing.

Like many of Douglas Adams’s whimsies, this is both absurd and weirdly wise. Its very absurdity makes it a vivid metaphor for getting into that state where you can get on with stuff without crippling yourself with over-thinking or self-criticism. In Inner Game terms, it’s about silencing Self 1.

On Re-Expanding our Boundaries

I have been thinking a lot recently about a post I wrote some years ago on expanding our boundaries. There I was reflecting that if we don’t stretch ourselves, in terms of where we go, what we do, and who we meet, our capacities have a tendency to shrink to fit the restricted range we’ve been operating in.

That was of course written at a time when we could choose to travel or to take up new pastimes as ways of meeting new people. These are choices that have been severely curtailed for a year now, and as we in the UK contemplate our various regional roadmaps back out of lockdown, we are all feeling the emotional and psychological effects of not having been able to stretch in many of these dimensions for so long.

HALO on Race and Real Talk

HALOworkshopmar21Last Saturday the British Association of Barbershop Singers held a training event for its Musical Directors on diversity with a particular focus on racism, led by the quartet HALO. They have a well-developed programme in which they use the musical relationships within the barbershop style as a metaphor to help clarify various aspects of a productive dialogue about inclusion and race.

After presenting the core concepts and working through some of their implications, they use it as an analytical tool to tease out insights in the discussions between workshop participants. I came away with a sense of having some powerful new tools for understanding, and a deep admiration for their facilitation skills. If you ever get the chance to attend one of their workshops, take it.

The Emotional Fallout of Plagiarism

I have been thinking about plagiarism for various reasons recently. It’s an issue in the moral order of both my worlds, the academic and the artistic, and probably is in any world in which the generation of original content is the primary output of value.

I am accustomed to thinking about this from perspective of those who have their worked appropriated, the poietic dimension if we’re being semiotic about it. Someone has put skill and time and effort and probably also heartache into producing a piece of writing or music or whatever, only to see someone else come along and use the fruits of their effort in their own work, taking not only the credit, but also often the material rewards that come with it (royalties, promotions).

The emotional response this generates has two dimensions. On one hand there’s the outrage on behalf of the original creator, who is pushed aside and eclipsed by the act of appropriation. To copy without due acknowledgement or permission is to erase the original creator from the work, and thus also to erase them as a person. The Death of the Author might be a useful concept from a critical perspective, but those who create new work continue to feel deeply invested in material that has dominated their waking and sleeping thoughts.

Rethinking Retreats with Granite City Chorus

Instead of a screen-shot: this is us last yearInstead of a screen-shot: this is us last year

When I spent a weekend in late February last year with Granite City Chorus for their annual retreat, it was in a hotel up in the mountains an hour from Aberdeen from Saturday morning to mid-afternoon on Sunday. As it became clear towards the end of 2020 that we weren’t going to be back to in-person singing in time for this year’s event, we had to reimagine it.

The first thing we did was to shorten it. The pleasures of deep immersion in musical learning away from home are not directly replicable online. Quite apart from the fact that everyone would still actually be at home, the cognitive demands of the medium make remote rehearsing more tiring. Plus of course many participants will be spending their working week with their eyes on screens, and need some quality time away from their devices at weekends.

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