Musical Identity

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.

BinG! Barbershop Musikfestival 2018

BinGBMF18It must be nearly a year ago that I played a new arrangement through to Jonathan before sending it off the chorus who had commissioned it, and he said, ‘Oh it would be nice to hear it sung’. And thus our vague intention to go to a Barbershop in Germany convention one day crystallised into the plan to make 2018 the year.

Jonathan was right, by the way. The Harmunichs’ performance of my medley of Queen’s ‘Play the Game’ and ‘Killer Queen’ was a total delight to behold. The standing ovation they received suggested that I was not the only person to think this, as did the aggregate score of 86.3% which won them the chorus championship decisively.

On Unlearning and Relearning Songs

This post is for anyone who has ever learned one part in a song, and then switched to another part at a later date. Learning the new part is one challenge, not getting distracted back onto singing your original part is another one.

I was asked if had any advice on this recently, and I realised that it’s something I have done a good deal, and rarely get the different parts tangled up in my head. So I’m writing this post to work out what strategies I have used to do this, or indeed what strategies I might have wanted to use had I found it harder than I did. I have three main suggestions so far.

How Conductors Create Incompetence in their Singers

Last autumn I had the opportunity to read a fascinating dissertation on choral singing in Oxford colleges by Emma Hall. (She has since blogged about some of her conclusions here.) It was a rich and nuanced piece of work, with lots to teach us, and there was one finding that really caught my attention for its implications for all choral practitioners.

This was the dynamic whereby conductors tend to correct sopranos more often than the other parts, giving both the sopranos themselves and the rest of the choir the impression that they need more correction, that they make more mistakes, thus both drawing on and reinforcing the stereotype of sopranos as the least competent voice part.

Coaching with The Rhubarbs

Classic warm-up pic, this one with natural lightClassic warm-up pic, this one with natural light

The weekend saw me heading off to Germany to work with barbershoppers in Bonn. The plan had been to spend Saturday afternoon with quartet Note-4-Note and Sunday with their chorus, The Rhubarbs, but the winter’s cold viruses had other ideas, and so I ended up with rather more time for sight-seeing time than usual. The Drachenfels makes a wonderful afternoon out, but it was still a pity to miss working with the quartet.

Looking back on the chorus day on Sunday, I am quite astonished at how productive it was. We visited areas including vocal skills, aural skills, story-telling/characterisation, directing skills and stage-craft, as well as the regular problem-solving of details in the repertoire that a coaching session would usually cover. Oh, and re-stacking the chorus by voice timbre.

Reinventing Dixie: Book Review, Part 2

My last post gave an overview of some of the ways that John Bush Jones’s book Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South is both useful and problematic. Today’s will consider his central thesis, that the mythic South constructed within Tin Pan Alley songs is a vision of a south contemporaneous with the songs’ own times, not nostalgia for a South of the past.

One of the strengths of this book, as I mentioned before, is that it provides plenty of specific detail with which to test the author’s analysis, and the evidence to support this thesis is mixed at best.

There are some specifically contemporary references in the war songs – those songs about Dixie boys, or indeed Alexander with his band, going over to France are clearly topical for the years of World War I. And one could make a case for the promulgation of contemporary styles of popular music such as ragtime to support the contemporary thesis, though Jones mostly confines himself to discussion of lyrics, with only passing mention of musical content.

Reinventing Dixie: Book Review

reinventingdixieIn the light of barbershop’s current debates about the role of Dixie songs in its repertoire, I was interested to hear of a book published a couple of years ago about exactly this corpus of songs. Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South sounded exactly like the kind of thing I should be reading!

I have not yet worked out whether I would recommend it in turn, for reasons that I aim to tease out in the next blog post or two (there may be more to talk about than will fit in just one). Overall I’d say it is more informative than explanatory – it told me lots of stuff that I didn’t otherwise know, but the analysis is weak, in places embarrassingly uncritical.

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.

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