Choral

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.

The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 3

The first two instalments of this series introduced the Myth of the Power of Singing, and examined how choral culture routinely undermines its claims by uncritical appeals to pseudoscience. This post turns to the narratives themselves, to note that whilst participants would on the whole confirm their claims, they don’t tell the whole story. The second reason we should think more critically about the narrative of the Power of Singing is that the very existence of this mythology invites one to ask: what is it hiding?

The Skeleton in the Closet

I have turned in a number of contexts over the years to the sociology of new religious movements to analyse various choral cultures – first barbershop, more recently Rock Choir and the Natural Voice Network – but in fact many of the social practices evident in these ‘fringe’ choral movements pervade the mainstream as well.

Some Words of Encouragement

I’m interrupting the series on the Myth of the Power of Singing for a quick pep talk to my choral colleagues. I’ve had a number of conversations in the last week or so which have featured caring, hard-working choral directors expressing a sense of overwhelm and inadequacy in the face of the technological challenges of remote rehearsing. If several my personal friends and acquaintances are feeling this way, I bet there are other choral leaders out there suffering similar doubts.

I’m going to start by stating the obvious. The situation we find ourselves in is wildly beyond what we thought we were signing up to do when we chose to become directors. We have no training for it, and those of us starting to offer training for it are really no more than a couple of weeks ahead than anyone else. And yet we have stepped up to keep the music going.

The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 2

In the first instalment of this series I highlighted the positive narratives that surround music-making in general and choral singing in particular, and argued that, whilst they undoubtedly feel experientially valid to those who share them, they would benefit from some critical examination. In this post, I start this critique by considering how choral practitioners’ relationship with science often lets enthusiasm run ahead of intelligence.

Singing and Pseudoscience

We know from our own lived experience that singing contributes to our wellbeing, and we like to share that experience. All too often, though, we promulgate nonsense in service of our cause. The self-help/self-improvement industry produces a regular stream of feel-good articles that mix up cherry-picked morsels from empirical studies with earnest encouragement from creative practitioners into a pseudoscientific concoction that vividly exemplifies the genre of literature that has memorably been termed ‘Neurobollocks’ in the blog of that name.

The Myth of the Power of Singing: An Essay in 5 Parts

This is the first instalment of a series of blog posts that turns a self-critical eye on the stories choral practitioners tell to ourselves about ourselves and what we do. It is based on the paper I was invited to present at Dublin City University’s Choral Research Study Day back in November 2019, of which it formed a subsidiary part of a wider discussion around how the scholar-practitioner copes with the inherent contradictions between their roles as impartial observer and as advocate.

I have wondered whether it is entirely kind to publish it at a time when choral practitioners are keenly feeling the loss of both the social and musical nourishment our regular activity would bring us. But then again perhaps now is an appropriate time for reflection; maybe we’ll have more perspective on our work at a time when we can’t actively engage in it. And at a pragmatic level: this is something I’ve been thinking about blogging about for years but now is the first time I’ve had enough of a hiatus in the other things I’d normally be writing about to make space for it. (And indeed I may interrupt the series with other things as they come up.)

Ah well, here goes.

Warming-up the Conductor-Choir Bond

It feels strange writing about the intimate real-time contact between conductor gesture and choral sounds at a time when I have been unable to experience it for three months and will likely have to wait many more before I can experience it again. But there are some interesting notes sitting in my thinking book from earlier in the year and now is as good a time as any to reflect on them.

Sometimes when I’m visiting a chorus to coach, the director might ask me to take the warm-up. I’ll always oblige because I too enjoy watching other people lead warm-ups, seeing what they do and how they do them. Part of what they’re paying for when getting an outsider in is approaches they may not have thought of (the other part of course being validation of good things they do already).

Book Review: Singing Through Change

singingthroughchangeTl;dr: this is a useful book, and you should read it.

Singing Through Change: Women’s Voices in Midlife, Menopause, and Beyond is, as you would imagine, relevant to the vast majority of people involved in singing. If you are a man who never makes music with adult women it may not touch on your activities very much (though you may well have female friends and relatives who would be happy for the men in their life to have some insight into their experiences), but for everyone else there will be direct relevance either for yourself, for the women you make music with, or both.

Singing, Safety, and Double Glazing

This is possibly not the metaphor you were expecting, but bear with me, I have found it a useful one for thinking about our current choral predicament.

If you’ve seen windows being fitted, you’ll know that the frames are installed first, and then the double-glazed units are inserted, and wedged into place with a strip of rubber seal all round the edge. If you’ve ever had problems with your double glazing, you may have learned that the seal will keep most of the rain out, but is unlikely to (and indeed not intended to) keep it all out. Instead, the frames are designed to drain the water that gets in back outside. (If the installers drill the holes out on the wrong side, they drain into your house instead of outside; DAMHIK.)

Likewise, whilst the installers will squeeze mastic all round the join between frames and wall, this is also not intended to be the primary means to keep the water out. The structure should be designed so that rain doesn’t get in, and the mastic serves as draught-proofing and to repel any minor seepage.

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