Musical Identity

Less is More with The Venus Effect

I didn't get a pic, so here's one of theirsI didn't get a pic, so here's one of theirsTuesday evening brought my friends The Venus Effect to me by Skype for a coaching session on the new arrangement of mine they’ll be bringing to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in October. As I’ve observed before, this mode of coaching is somewhat different from the face-to-face experience, but still offers opportunities to get loads done.

The thing you might be worried about – sound quality – is to my mind less of an issue; after all, the 78prm record offered valid and artistic musical experiences. I notice more that the potential for inhabitance is impaired – the slight time delay means you can’t fully coordinate with the quartet, either gesturally or vocally. So the experience is more arms-length, giving instructions to be acted on, rather than being in the music with them. Still, since we couldn’t find a time in the diary we could all be in the same room together, Skype coaching is infinitely more useful than no coaching.

Inclusiveness at HU 2018: Next Thoughts

Halo on the Saturday Night showHalo on the Saturday Night showI told you that this theme would recur in my reflections on Harmony University. Not sure as I start to write this one whether I’ve got one or two more posts-worth of notes, but we’ll find out as we go.

One major event that you can’t write about Inclusivity at HU2018 without discussing was the Monday evening elective convened by Chris Rimple. The combined training material he has developed to help barbershop chapters become more inclusive with a panel discussion (and, ultimately, a whole-room discussion) on the kinds of behaviour people have experienced in both their barbershop careers and outside lives that have left them feeling excluded (and/or enraged – some examples were shocking).

The Deke Sharon Keynote: A Masterclass in 'Yes, But'

Continuing my reflections on Harmony University, Deke Sharon’s keynote address is going to take a post of its own, and probably quite a long one at that. Which is entirely how it should be – his job as keynote speaker is to get people thinking, and he succeeded in starting conversations that went on all week.

His theme was ‘Divergent paths’: reflecting on the way that organised barbershop separated off from the Black vocal harmony traditions the genre had once been part of, and using examples from continuing African American traditions to imagine how barbershop might have turned out if it had not spent so much of the past 80 years as a segregated genre. This is a fabulous thought experiment through which to consider the history of vocal harmony genres, though on reflection I am starting to suspect it was also the root of many of the ‘yes, buts…’ that emerged in response.

The Barbershop Harmony Society and Culture Change: Impressions from HU 2018

Harmony University 2018 facultyHarmony University 2018 faculty

I am just back from a week teaching at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Harmony University, and I am sure nobody will be surprised to know I come home with a full notebook. Indeed, I had collected a goodly collection of notes before the event had even started, as they had me travel out early to take advantage of cheaper airfares, and so I arrived as the previous event on the campus, a leadership summit, was finishing. I thus had the chance to chat with the organisation’s staff and administrative leaders to get a picture of how life is on the ground at the moment in the Barbershop Harmony Society.

More on the Use of Language in Rehearsal

I know, I know, it’s a theme I keep coming back to. But along with the physical posture and gesture a conductor uses, their choice of words to address their ensemble makes up the much of the fabric of lived experience in that group. And even the most disciplined director who manages to minimise their verbal instructions needs to say things sometimes.

So, my usual tack through this theme is to encourage directors and coaches to give positive to-dos rather than name the problem. Don’t verbalise the diagnosis (‘delivery is a bit ploddy’), go straight to the intervention (‘sing with more flow’).

Keep doing this, it’s good advice.

Healing Us-and-Themness in Choirs 2: Stewardship

My last post was in response to a reader’s question about helping a chorus that had suffer a split move beyond the us-and-them wrangling that had led to the break and move forward together. My theme that time was Values: finding a way that the chorus could agree about what they collectively hold most dear as a set of principles to drive their behaviours.

Since receiving his query, I read a really powerful post by a barbershop friend John Donehower about the experience of someone he sang with many years ago, but who had left the chapter, never to return. I’ll quote the key passage at some length because I don’t think my paraphrase would really do justice to it:

Healing Us-and-Themness in Choirs 1: Values

A while back I had an email from a reader who has been drawing on my previous posts about how to prevent us-and-themness in choirs, with all its attendant difficulties. He had been finding the strategies useful in part, but was struggling with a situation in which his chorus had been so riven that it had actually split, with one faction leaving to start a new chorus.

He found himself as long-term interim director of those left behind, grappling with continued us-and-them behaviours, which were making it hard to heal and move on.

My first thought in response to his mail was to think about building an explicit framework of values. When I’ve written about this before I’ve tended to focus on the power of a director’s vocabulary and behaviours to shape a choir’s ethos, but in this case it feels like what is needed is to flush out the singers’ belief systems.

Soapbox: On 'The Golliwog’s Cakewalk'

soapboxEver since I started writing about race and repertoire a couple of years ago, I have been quietly fretting about a particular piece of piano music that I, like many piano students, learned in my teens for one of my grade exams. It is still appearing on exam syllabuses today. Earlier this spring, these private misgivings became public when I found myself involved in an online conversation about its problematics with a group of pianists and piano teachers, many of whom also teach and perform it.

The piece in question is ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ from Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite. The conversation has stayed with me since, forcing me to clarify my own feelings about the piece. I’m reflecting on those feelings here to try and bring some coherence to them in the aftermath of the difficult experience of finding myself at odds with people I’d usually identify with quite strongly. I keep telling myself it’s the uncomfortable experiences that lead to growth.

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