Musical Identity

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.

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.

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.

Soapbox: Allocating Parts for Emotional Damage

soapboxIn SATB music, it’s relatively easy figure out which part people should sing if they don’t already know. The texture is built around a divide by sex, with a split between higher and lower voices in each. So you just see what kind of range someone has, and slot them in where the notes they have and the notes the music needs coincide. Some people (counter-tenors, female tenors) defy the first part, but the stratification by range still works, so the model as a whole presents safe a generalisation of how to go about things.

One of the defining characteristics of barbershop music is that the parts are all much less differentiated by range (there’s a clue in the description ‘close-harmony’). Thus, most people can readily sing at least two of the parts, usually three, sometimes all four. You’d think this would take some of the pressure off the decision-making process of part-allocation, but in fact it seems more often to intensify the reliance on social stereotyping in identifying parts.

Zooming in to Fascinating Rhythm

Screengrab or it didn't happen...Screengrab or it didn't happen...

Thursday evening brought the opportunity to spend an hour with my friends at Fascinating Rhythm. Just before lockdown they had just got the most recent arrangement I had done for them to the point where they basically knew it and could start refining it. They have persisted with that project remotely, and though we can’t yet hear the results of that work, they are at least spending their time deepening their insight into the song.

My visit was part of that project. This visit took the form of a seminar/presentation about certain aspects of the music, punctuated with a breakout task to get the chorus active in the process, and my next visit will involve working with the section leaders to explore how these ideas apply when actually sing the music.

One of the points I found myself most eager to share was a point about the relationship between motif and characterisation. Both because it was helping to make sense of a distinctive feature of this chart, and also because it was fun to share the story behind how it came to be. I often say that it’s in tackling the technical challenges of an arrangement that you find yourself developing the most creative artistic ideas, and this is a classic case in point.

On Surface Over-Compensating

When I was observing a lot of conductors as the heart of the research for my choral conducting book, I noticed how certain hand positions appear to correlate with certain types of relationship with the activity. In particular, I noted a kind of angular hand shape: wrists cocked back, fingers straight and folded forward at a right angle from the main knuckle, thumbs sticking up, and the ictus formed by a kind of scooping motion with the heel of the hand.

The choral sounds that this hand shape typically elicited were quite bright in tone, and reasonably well controlled, but often containing audible vocal tension and lacking bloom on the sound. The overall sound was often rather more contained and muted than you might have expected from the number of singers involved.

8-Parter Project: Double Quartet or Double Chorus?

Having considered the nature of the 8-part ensemble from the perspective of genre (SATB divisi versus combined male and female barbershop ensembles), we also need to consider the question of whether we’re thinking about combined choruses or quartets, i.e. whether we have one person or several people singing each part.

This is something I’ve thought about in general terms, and I was interested to look back and see that it also was all the way back in 2009 that I first wrote about it, and moreover that my thoughts were relatively underdeveloped back then. I’ve done a lot more thinking since about the nature of doubling: how you can move more flexibly between different numbers of sounding lines when you have a multiple voices per part than you can with one-a-part textures. This was something I particularly enjoyed with Magenta; in a group where we all sang different parts for different songs, we could move seamlessly between unisons, duets and full harmonies because we were all accustomed to blending with different combinations of voices as a matter of course.

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