Choral

Conducting, and Teaching Conducting, Online

The new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the appThe new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the app

On Saturday afternoon I spent an hour teaching a session on Basic Directing Skills as part of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers’ eOnline programme. (As an aside, it’s a fab programme – really varied classes, and there have been a couple or three a week all summer.)

This is a set of skills I have taught many times over the years, but never previously in a situation in which you can’t use sound as part of the learning process. Which is rather the point of directing, isn’t it? The process at the heart of both teaching conducting and the act of conducting itself is to listen to what you’re getting back and adjust your own posture, gesture, and facial expressions to make it sound better.

Singing and Happiness in a Virtual World

happinesshormones

Back in the early years of this blog, I used a rubric from a Mind Gym book to analyse the ways in which group singing can make us happy. I was reminded of it recently when a friend shared a different analysis of dimensions of happiness, articulated in terms of hormones, their effects, and activities to promote them.

Now part of me was a bit suspicious about this. It smelled a little like one of those pseudoscientific things that extrapolate from biology to behaviour in a way that goes beyond the evidence. All those hormones exist for sure, but the term ‘hack’ may well be code for ‘oversimplification’.

Still, even if the chain from chemical to lifestyle is factitious, the four quadrants still represent a useful anatomy of satisfying experiences: reward, love, serenity, and relief from pain remain useful categories when planning our experiential objectives.

The Key to Remote Rehearsing: Opportunities to Listen

opptohearOne of the things that teaching, and in particular preparing to teach, does for you is to bring implicit knowledge into conversant awareness. I mentioned in my previous post reflecting on the session I ran for LABBS on Principles for Remote Rehearsing that two observations rose to the top in preparing and presenting it. I talked about the first there; it is now time to consider the second.

I have for many years used a quick and dirty rubric for describing the effects of rehearsal pacing on singer experience. As I discuss in the blog post that introduces it, there are nuances beneath the surface that lead to richer refinements of rehearsal technique, but it remains a really useful starting point for analysis.

A similar kind of rubric is starting to emerge for me that articulates quality of experience for singers in online rehearsing. The key question it asks is:

For what proportion of the rehearsal does each singer have the opportunity to hear other people’s voices in real time?

The Evolution of Online Rehearsals

A few weeks ago I led a session for The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers on Principles for Remote Rehearsing. It was a good opportunity to bring together a lot of what people have shared over the last 4-5 months and extract some common themes from the various successes and failures. In the process, two more over-arching observations emerged. Edit: the first of these apparently is enough to fill the rest of this post, so the other will come another day.

The first observation is how varied the approaches to remote rehearsal have been. In normal choral rehearsals, you mostly know what you’re going to see. There are variations between choral traditions to an extent, and between the approaches needed for different skill levels, but these are variations on a common theme. Having visited a lot of choral rehearsals both in the course of research for my second book, and in my decade of freelance coaching, I feel quite safe in this generalisation.

Singing in Masks

The Telfordaires at our first live meet since March: We sing outdoors, distanced, masked, in smaller groups, and for limited durations. Main rehearsals for everyone together remain online for now.The Telfordaires at our first live meet since March: We sing outdoors, distanced, masked, in smaller groups, and for limited durations. Main rehearsals for everyone together remain online for now.

Back in the depths of lockdown, when the only shops that were open were grocery stores, I was walking home along a weirdly empty high street with a bag of shopping, singing to myself absent-mindedly. After a while I noticed that (a) I had never sung in a mask before* and it was so easy that it had taken me a while to realise I was even doing it, and (b) I had no idea if I normally sing absent-mindedly to myself on the way home from the shops, or whether it was some combination of empty streets and the illusion of privacy behind a mask that had freed me up to do so.

This was still at the time when the general public were being exhorted not to buy medical masks but to leave them for those in health and care services. I had friends in East Asia telling me that masks were the norm for infection control in their countries, but it would be another 3 months before face coverings were made mandatory for indoor public settings in the UK. So my mask was home-made, in three layers of cotton; I later added a nose-wire to improve the fit around the top.

Since then, of course, we have learned from the work at the University of Colorado and colleagues what a tremendous difference masks make to the emission of aerosols by singers, and thus to enhancing the safety of choral music-making. Look at the graphics on pages 18,19 & 27 of this document to see what a dramatic difference they make.

Remote Rehearsing and Vegetarian Cookery

I know, the metaphors don’t get less random, do they?

I’m writing this post to work through a thought that has gradually been coming into focus as we get used to remote rehearsing and exchange ideas about how we go about it. The starting point was how some ideas made me think, ‘ooh great, we can try that!’ while my response to others was much less enthusiastic. As I remarked recently, this is in many ways just a reflection of the fact that we all have different profiles of skills and approaches.

Still, interrogating why I react so differently to different proposals has led me to a specific observation. As I reflect on the kind of choices I’ve been making when devising online activities for choral groups I realise that I’m starting to approach it in much the way I approach cooking. For context, I’ve been vegetarian since 1987, and that’s when I really started to learn how to cook.

The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 5

The first four posts in this series were based on a critique of the Myth of the Power of Singing I presented as part of my paper for a Choral Studies Research Day in Dublin last November. This final post moves beyond that material to consider some of the ramifications for choral practitioners ourselves, and at this time.

Choral Exceptionalism.

If ever we wanted confirmation that the Myth of the Power of Singing isn’t *just* a myth, the era of Covid-19 has provided it. Deprived of our regular fix of raising our voices with our friends, choral singers across the world are pining and grieving, fiercely missing the comfort and connection of the feel of that corporate sound around us. We didn’t imagine the joy – just look at the gaping hole it left when taken away from us.

But to confirm that singing in groups has powerful effects on participants is not the same as to say it is unique in its capacity to uplift. Singing may be wonderful, but that does not necessarily mean that it is special.

The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 4

The previous two posts in this series examined, respectively, the problems in using pseudoscience to promote singing, and the negative aspects of choral culture that the Myth of the power of Singing serves to hide. This post examines the issues the Myth presents for the scholar-practioner, creating a structural conflict between the two halves of the role.

The scholar-practitioner’s dilemma

The scholar-practitioner arguably always has a tricky line to tread. As a scholar they are committed to ideals of objectivity and transparency; as a practitioner they clearly have skin in the game. The prevailing narrative that singing is always and inherently a Good Thing amplifies this conflict of interest by eliding the distinction between practice and advocacy for that practice. The result is a tendency to build mythological assumptions into research design.

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