Musical Identity

Constructing the Identity of a Feminist Musicologist: Mainstream or Margins?

I won’t be posting during December, so I’ll leave you with a longer piece to be getting on with. This was my keynote address at the Musique et Genre conference in Paris in December 2015.

Wishing you all a vibrantly feminist holiday season, and see you in the New Year


Individuals construct their sense of self through autobiography. We each maintain an internal narrative, using the discourses our culture provides, to make sense of our experiences and thus understand who we are, what we have done, and what we might yet do. We also do this in groups, where shared stories bind people together into cohorts. We tell the stories to newcomers to make them ‘one of us’. We re-tell the stories amongst ourselves to re-live shared experience, and update our understanding of what that experience means. In academia, we call this process ‘literature review’. We create our identities as scholars through the search terms we choose to build our bibliographies.

Moving on From Dixie Songs: the Negotiation Process

So, it’s a few months since Joey Minshall captured the feeling of a moment with her #donewithdixie post. In the time since, the hard work has started of negotiating with individual ensembles about why these songs, once so central to barbershop repertoire, are no longer being received quite so enthusiastically in all quarters as they once were.

You can understand singers who have put a lot of time and love into polishing performances feeling reluctant to let go of that investment, and they will often bring out arguments as to why they should continue singing these songs. This post takes a few of the frequently-heard points to consider outside of the context of any one conversation. Just so we can get our heads round them in a place where nobody has to take it personally right here right now.

On the Fear of Improvement

I have often quipped over the years that many people find increasing their skill levels to be an experience like the old song, ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die’ – as in, everyone wants to get better, but nobody wants to change. But I have been reflecting recently on a phenomenon that lies behind this inertia: some people seem actively to fear getting better.

Phrase it like that, and it sounds bonkers. Why would anyone shy away from being more competent and assured at doing the thing they love? But it is an observable phenomenon, and one which I need to understand if I am to succeed in my life’s aim of helping people make music with more confidence, skill and joy.

You have to look quite carefully to make the observation, of course. People don’t come straight out and say that they’re not going to use a technique that will improve their breath control or range or expressive power because they’re scared of it. Rather, it emerges in various forms of blocking behaviour: self-sabotage, distraction, attacking the legitimacy of the technique or the person who’s teaching it, picking a fight over something completely unrelated.

Choosing Repertoire in the Era of Post-Dixie Barbershop

The discussions about how and to what extent barbershop as a genre and as a community moves away from repertoire that glorifies the Old South is ongoing, and likely to continue for some time. This post is about the more practical question of working out which of the songs in the established barbershop repertoire are likely to be problematic.

I’m assuming that it’s mostly people outside the US who need to walk through this. We have imported a genre, and through mastering its craft have allied ourselves with a worldwide family with whom we identify and share emotional, cognitive and visceral patterns of being. But the repertoire we have imported along with these ways of being doesn’t always bring all of its meanings with it.

The Moral Hazard of Dixie Nostalgia

Moral hazard. Noun. Economics.
Lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences, e.g. by insurance.

I looked up the term moral hazard as I thought it might make a catchy pun for my title in relation to a topic that’s going to turn up a bit later in this post. On checking the definition, my first thought was: well, maybe not – it’s quite specific to its context. But as I reflected, I realised that actually it works better than I first thought as a metaphor in cultural spheres outside economics.

Moral hazard. Noun. Real Life.
Lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences, e.g. by white privilege.

Inclusiveness Versus Diversity

‘Versus?!’ I hear you cry. It’s true that we usually use these two words interchangeably when we talk about opening up our choirs (or our schools or our boardrooms) to attract people from a wider range of demographics than hitherto. But the two words approach the same project from interestingly distinct angles, and once you start thinking through the differences it can affect how you go about that project.

The immediate context for this is the Barbershop Harmony Society’s new strategic vision, which I both praised and critiqued a few weeks back. The topicality is far wider than this, of course, but it was this set of debates that had me thinking about this in a more focused fashion, and coming to the conclusion that, if you want to get ‘Everyone in Harmony’, inclusiveness is a more useful term to focus on than diversity.

On Singing All the Lines

It was almost 7 years ago when I wrote in detail about Making Parts into Lines. At the time I had just been working on the Mary Poppins set for Cottontown Chorus, and it remains a landmark moment in my development as an arranger. Not just because this was the first time any of my arrangements had won a contest gold, but because the process of working through the technical and artistic detail gave me musical insights that have informed my work ever since.

This was also the place where I first articulated the performer’s two roles – as Manager and Communicator – which have become very useful concepts in my coaching as well as my arranging.

Diversity, Revisionism and the Pitfalls of Ambition: A Barbershop Case Study

Music history, like any history, isn’t a neutral portrayal of the past, but the result of a value-laden selection process. Somebody decides what counts as salient historical fact worthy to be included in the narrative.

Revisionist history comes about when someone notices that the choices underlying the narratives we have inherited about our pasts no longer chime well with the values with which we aspire to live our presents. They then go and dig out information about people and events that had hitherto been omitted, and they re-interpret those already included, sometimes finding quite different meanings in them.

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