Choral

Setting the Tone with Jordan Travis

The collected directors, led in song by Jordan TravisThe collected directors, led in song by Jordan Travis

I spent the weekend at the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual Directors Academy, this year led by guest educator Jordan Travis. At the start of the weekend he framed his approach using the metaphor of harmony that is central to barbershop culture: musical harmony as both cause and expression of social harmony.

As the weekend progressed, though, a more specific metaphor seemed to emerge in his twin interests in vocal technique on one hand and chorus culture and values on the other. This crystallised on the Sunday morning while we were analysing the warm-up he had led the delegates through, and he talked about the ways that the warm-up ‘sets the tone’ for the rehearsal to come in both dimensions.

On Vocal Confidence

Since the start of the year is a traditional time for goal-setting, I had conversations earlier in the month with various singers about what they would like to get better at during 2019. And there’s a theme that has come up in several times that I’d like to reflect on for a while, and to consider how best to support people working on it: vocal confidence.

You can see why people identify it as a goal: it is very natural to want to feel more secure in what you’re doing. What is less immediately clear is what produces this feeling. Because as I’ve noted before, confidence is not the same as competence - your objective skill level and how you feel about your performance are connected to an extent, but it’s by no means a direct or linear relationship. And sometimes the relationship is even inverted.

The Christmas Song Paradox

My title today refers to a paradox relating to Christmas repertoire in general, rather than to the specific song of that title. But now I’ve mentioned it, I am going to be self-indulgent and get a few things off my chest.

  1. Why the definite article? Other Christmas songs are available
  2. Nobody dresses up like Eskimos for Christmas. For sure there are all kinds of wintry clichés associated with the festival that have little or nothing to do either with its pagan origins or its appropriation to celebrate a Palestinian-born Messiah. (For example, I don’t recall the gospels mentioning penguins along with the ox and the ass). But the Eskimos line is clearly there for no other purpose than to rhyme with ‘Jack Frost nipping at your nose’.

    And you wouldn’t think it should be too hard to find something else, less absurd, that would fit. Chose, crows, doze, froze, goes, hellos, joes, lows, pose, prose, rose, sews, shows, suppose, toes, those, woes…all those possibilities…

    Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
    And played through speakers made by Bose

    Okay, so this doesn’t pass the ‘less absurd’ test, but it is likely to be more factually accurate.

  3. Everybody knows that candles and some fairy lights help to keep the season bright. Turkeys and mistletoe have their seasonal uses, but not typically as lighting solutions.

Clarity of Concept, Clarity of Gesture

I recently had some correspondence with a director who asked me for feedback on her technique after I’d been working with her chorus, and it took us into territory that feels like other directors might also be interested in. So, I’m doing the further thinking about it I promised to do publicly here.

It started with an observation I made about how she came over in action:

I observe that when your musical concept is clearer, your gestures are more neat and precise and it takes less effort to communicate. So it may be that when you are finding the physical coordination more difficult, that is a signal that you need to clarify your musical concepts more. That is a working hypothesis rather than an absolute, but one which there is no downside to exploring.

She replied that she found this plausible, and that in fact it was sometimes developing the musical concept itself that presented the challenge:

On Saying the Same Things Every Week – Again

As I write this title, I realise there’s a pleasant self-referentiality in revisiting this particular subject. Last time I wrote about it, my point was that, instead of getting frustrated with their singers when they find themselves repeating instructions, a director could more usefully consider why their instructions aren’t working and explore different ways to achieve their ends.

Today’s thought shares the point that it is counter-productive for directors to get frustrated by saying the same things week after week, but suggests that this is because sometimes repetition is exactly what is needed.

On the Belief-Capacity Relationship and Choral Stereotypes: A Case Study

Some recent email correspondence about an arrangement of mine turned into a fascinating practical case study in a couple of areas I enjoy theorising about. Normally in this situation I’d make a point of anonymising my correspondent, but since he or she didn’t actually sign any of their emails, it’s kind of a moot point. (This isn’t actually relevant to the story; I just wanted to share the oddness with you!)

Anyway, whoever wrote to me is a chorus director whose chorus had recently purchased copies of my arrangement of Happy Together without consulting him/her, and he/she was dismayed to discover it features a good deal of bass melody. The leads in his/her chorus apparently cannot do harmonies, despite many years of trying, so would I give him permission to re-arrange it with the leads on the tune.

Penny-Drop Moment

This is going to be a short one, but it deserves a post in its own right for the sense of revelation it afforded me when the idea plopped into my head.

One of the things I had been thinking about a good deal over the summer is keeping articulation small and precise, and in particular keeping the jaw at rest while singing. This is one of the things that Sean Bui worked on with the Telfordaires in June when he came to us for a coaching session, and it has proved both transformative and challenging. Until we started applying this as a means to reduce tension and improve resonance, we hadn’t realised how much the chorus had been accustomed to experiencing muscular engagement as part of emotional intensity.

Ensemble Singing and the Illusion of Oneness

The Composer’s Voice by Edward Cone is a classic of music theory that, though flawed in many ways (as all startlingly innovative theories are), still fuels my thinking about music meaning and its illusions 25 years after I first read it. One of the flaws is how misleading the title is, since the book breaks out of the dominant post-Romantic cliché of music being all about the composer’s message to the listener, and gives a way to hear instead the virtual voices the composer has created.

The key concept he introduces is that of musical personae: virtual characters emerging from the music, whose story the music tells. There are all kinds of interesting questions this raises in instrumental music – how you identify personae, how you interpret the narratives – but his starting point is the simpler case of song. When you have lyrics to sing, it is clear that you are representing a character, a fictional being at a certain point in a story, and the clues as to your backstory and setting can be found in both the words and the musical setting.

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