On Stereotypes and Agency

A participant in the debate about race and repertoire I reflected on recently made one of those passing comments that don’t pass, but insist on staying in your head demanding to be thought about. It was about when Black singers perform music that portrays Black stereotypes: ‘but she is African American and it is her choice to make for whatever reason’.

Now, it is clear what the tension is here that people are trying to resolve. The portrayal of African Americans in blackface is quite transparently imposing a dominant culture’s representation on people who are afforded no agency in the cultural process. The reputational damage is direct and undisputed. But if African Americans themselves sing lyrics that might be thought to evoke such stereotypes, does this suggest that objecting to those stereotypes is being over-sensitive? Can we use the performances of Black singers as information about what kinds of lyrics are okay?

Miscellaneous Observations from BinG! Harmony College

Cy Wood in actionCy Wood in actionAs I reported earlier in the month, I had a stupendously enriching time with the good people of Barbershop in Germany at their Harmony College. Having done all the big-picture reflections when I first came home, I find my notebook has a pile of interesting observations, none of which is big enough to blog about in themselves, but all of which are too useful not to share.

So here is a pleasant miscellany of observations of things I found stimulating. Mostly, I see now I write them up, because they were specific instances of general principles I have been writing about over the last couple of years. Always good to see something you theorise about played out in real life.

Helping Holland Harmonise

The Buzz: They did sing an 8-parter with Crossroads, but I had run out of battery by then, so no pic...The Buzz: They did sing an 8-parter with Crossroads, but I had run out of battery by then, so no pic...

The weekend after my adventures at BinG! Harmony College, I was at serving on the faculty at another Harmony College, this time in the Netherlands. I’m going to try to avoid talking about Holland Harmony’s event primarily in terms that compare it with Germany’s and treat it as a subject in its own right as it deserves.

But just to get the comparisons out of the way, I’ll note that it wasn’t just the proximity in dates that make it tempting to consider them side by side. They both had a similar structure, with a contest on the first evening, an informal sign-up show on the Saturday night, and a final show-and-tell performance session to finish the weekend. There were also several faculty members in common between the two events.

BinG! Harmony College 2016

Welcoming the assembled delegatesWelcoming the assembled delegates

Over the weekend I was back in Oberwesel with my friends from BinG! (Barbershop in Germany) for their Harmony College. Like last year, I come home with a note-book full of ideas to digest and a heart full of the nourishment you get from events that are intensive both musically and interpersonally.

As an experience for repeat visitors, it offered both continuity and familiarity, and a sense of change and renewal. You could say this of the faculty list, which included returners from last year like me, returners from previous years, and faces completely new to BinG!, and also of the content and organisation of the school. New for this year were opportunities for quartet singers to participate in the college choruses, a taster ‘extreme quartet experience’ scheme intended to make quartet activity accessible to those who didn’t have a quartet to come to the school with, as well as a different selection of classes on offer.

Performing Silence

I have written before about the various musical functions of silences with the flow of a piece of music, and thus why we should respect notated rests. But I thought it worth spending a little time thinking about how the performer can do this. We spend a lot of our rehearsal time focusing on how to achieve the bits of the music that sound aloud, but tend to assume that the silent bits will look after themselves.

But the not-sound of a musical silence is not necessarily the same as all the not-sounds we emit (or, rather, don't emit) all the time when we're not singing, playing and conversing with people. They carry meanings created by and within the musical contexts they appear in that make positive contributions to the audience's experience, and thus need performing positively.

Conversation Repair, Musicking Repair

You know when an acquaintance makes a comment that gets you thinking on and off for some months? I had one of those moments back in December and have been seeing new things in my music-making ever since. Her comment was about how she had always felt musical performance to be a high-pressure activity, as there was the imperative to keep going at all costs. She contrasted this with activities such as conversation in which people are constantly making mistakes and fixing them; conversation repair is part of the collaborative endeavour of interaction.

Now, I certainly recognised that sense of pressure she identified as something that probably also contribution to my own struggles with performance anxiety through youth and early adulthood. But I also recognised her description of conversation repair as something musicians do all the time in rehearsal (and, indeed, in performance).

Multi-Dimensional Goal-Setting

This is something I’ve talked about in my Make Your Nerves Work For You sessions at various events over the years, but I think it’s worth mulling over in a wider context too. Goal-setting is not just about managing performance psychology, after all. (Though I think this wider context does help draw attention to the way that things we think of as specifically performance-related issues are often rooted far deeper in our whole relationship with our praxis.) And first blog-post of the New Year feels like a good moment to share these thoughts.

So, this is a nice simple formulation, borrowed from sports psychology. It distinguishes 3 different types of goal:

Adrenaline and Tempo: Taking Control

I recently had a question from a director that struck me as one of those that I’m sure a lot of us grapple with on occasion. So I gave her some specific advice for the performance she was preparing for in the immediate future, but said I’d give it a think and blog in more detail about other things to consider after the big gig.

This was her question:

When I'm directing, even if in my head it's painfully slow.... It's much faster! I know it's linked to my nerves/adrenaline of competition but recently realised it happens a lot

My immediate advice was twofold:

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