Singing in Masks

The Telfordaires at our first live meet since March: We sing outdoors, distanced, masked, in smaller groups, and for limited durations. Main rehearsals for everyone together remain online for now.The Telfordaires at our first live meet since March: We sing outdoors, distanced, masked, in smaller groups, and for limited durations. Main rehearsals for everyone together remain online for now.

Back in the depths of lockdown, when the only shops that were open were grocery stores, I was walking home along a weirdly empty high street with a bag of shopping, singing to myself absent-mindedly. After a while I noticed that (a) I had never sung in a mask before* and it was so easy that it had taken me a while to realise I was even doing it, and (b) I had no idea if I normally sing absent-mindedly to myself on the way home from the shops, or whether it was some combination of empty streets and the illusion of privacy behind a mask that had freed me up to do so.

This was still at the time when the general public were being exhorted not to buy medical masks but to leave them for those in health and care services. I had friends in East Asia telling me that masks were the norm for infection control in their countries, but it would be another 3 months before face coverings were made mandatory for indoor public settings in the UK. So my mask was home-made, in three layers of cotton; I later added a nose-wire to improve the fit around the top.

Since then, of course, we have learned from the work at the University of Colorado and colleagues what a tremendous difference masks make to the emission of aerosols by singers, and thus to enhancing the safety of choral music-making. Look at the graphics on pages 18,19 & 27 of this document to see what a dramatic difference they make.

Exploring Implicit Knowledge with the Red Rosettes

Screenshot or it didn't happen...Screenshot or it didn't happen...

I had a productive session on Tuesday evening with the music team of the Red Rosettes, exploring musical features of the ballad I arranged for them last year. I would have met with the whole chorus, but their rehearsal clashes with my own, and while under normal circumstances I don’t mind occasionally abandoning my team to get on with things while I visit another chorus, under current conditions I’d rather not. Not that my team aren’t awesome, you understand, I just want to be there for them.

Anyway, the Red Rosettes were very understanding, and we recorded the session to share with the rest of their singers. There is an advantage in a smaller group that you have a more genuinely interactive session, so there were upsides too.

They had sent me a recording of the chorus singing the ballad just before lockdown, and whilst it was clearly still work-in-progress, you could hear that they are on the case: they have a clear intuitive feel for what the music is doing and what it asks of the singers. Our session largely involved bring this intuition to the surface, articulating things they have felt implicitly to help them understand their instincts.

Accepting Music Theory’s White Frame: Now What?

In my previous blog post, I gave the background to the ideas I’m now going to start processing in detail. In this post I’m going to reflect on some of the ideas presented by respondents to Philip Ewell in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies* who took the line of: we recognise both that Schenker held racist beliefs, and that he considered his social/political ideologies to be integral to his music theory. What shall we do about it?

I’m going to start with Christopher Segall’s suggestion that we move the focus away from specifically Schenkerian analysis and instead think (and write, and teach) in terms of prolongational analysis. He posits that this opens up the field for a greater variety of theoretical voices (such as his example of Kholopov), while retaining the most central musical concept that makes Schenker’s work useful.

Thoughts on Music Theory’s White Frame: the Background

The world of music scholarship has been unusually eventful over the summer of 2020, in particular North American Music Theory, but waves felt more generally as well. Readers not in touch with academic music may have seen some if it spilling over into more mainstream media, often in rather inflammatory and misleading ways, but if you haven’t, I’ll start with a quick account of what’s happened for context.

Then I’ll get my teeth into the interesting ideas that are the actual reason I want to write about this, not all the kerfuffle surrounding them. Still, if it weren’t for the kerfuffle I don’t know that I’d have come across the good stuff, so it has served a purpose.

So, the background. At the Society for Music Theory’s annual conference in 2019, Prof Philip Ewell presented a plenary paper entitled ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, which has subsequently been published in a more developed form by Music Theory Online. He has also worked through some of the key ideas with less of a specific focus on one form of analysis in a series of blog posts, which are probably more user friendly for readers not directly familiar with Schenkerian analysis.

Remote Rehearsing and Vegetarian Cookery

I know, the metaphors don’t get less random, do they?

I’m writing this post to work through a thought that has gradually been coming into focus as we get used to remote rehearsing and exchange ideas about how we go about it. The starting point was how some ideas made me think, ‘ooh great, we can try that!’ while my response to others was much less enthusiastic. As I remarked recently, this is in many ways just a reflection of the fact that we all have different profiles of skills and approaches.

Still, interrogating why I react so differently to different proposals has led me to a specific observation. As I reflect on the kind of choices I’ve been making when devising online activities for choral groups I realise that I’m starting to approach it in much the way I approach cooking. For context, I’ve been vegetarian since 1987, and that’s when I really started to learn how to cook.

The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 5

The first four posts in this series were based on a critique of the Myth of the Power of Singing I presented as part of my paper for a Choral Studies Research Day in Dublin last November. This final post moves beyond that material to consider some of the ramifications for choral practitioners ourselves, and at this time.

Choral Exceptionalism.

If ever we wanted confirmation that the Myth of the Power of Singing isn’t *just* a myth, the era of Covid-19 has provided it. Deprived of our regular fix of raising our voices with our friends, choral singers across the world are pining and grieving, fiercely missing the comfort and connection of the feel of that corporate sound around us. We didn’t imagine the joy – just look at the gaping hole it left when taken away from us.

But to confirm that singing in groups has powerful effects on participants is not the same as to say it is unique in its capacity to uplift. Singing may be wonderful, but that does not necessarily mean that it is special.

The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 4

The previous two posts in this series examined, respectively, the problems in using pseudoscience to promote singing, and the negative aspects of choral culture that the Myth of the power of Singing serves to hide. This post examines the issues the Myth presents for the scholar-practioner, creating a structural conflict between the two halves of the role.

The scholar-practitioner’s dilemma

The scholar-practitioner arguably always has a tricky line to tread. As a scholar they are committed to ideals of objectivity and transparency; as a practitioner they clearly have skin in the game. The prevailing narrative that singing is always and inherently a Good Thing amplifies this conflict of interest by eliding the distinction between practice and advocacy for that practice. The result is a tendency to build mythological assumptions into research design.

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.

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