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.

Swinging with Norwich Harmony

NHmay18

I spent Saturday working with my friends at Norwich Harmony. Most of our attention was on rhythm in their latest addition to their contest repertoire, with harmonic interludes to vary the musical diet.

We had two main priorities in working with swing rhythms. One was getting the backbeat framework consistently in place, with the main pulses on 2 & 4. As with many a cappella swing tunes, sometimes the surface rhythm facilitated this, but there were also quite straight-looking rhythms that nonetheless needed enlivening by the overall swing flavour.

Bucket-list breathing

This is a dual purpose post. Its first aim is to fulfil a request to explain an approach to breathing taught by Jim Henry at the LABBS Directors Weekend 3 years ago for someone who wasn’t at it. Its second is to reflect on my experience teaching that approach to others, from which I have drawn some wider conclusions about teaching.

So, first to the method. Dr Jim called this 1-2-3 breathing, as it focuses your attention to breathing in 3 stages. First, you breathe in down to the bottom of your lungs, letting your waist and lower ribs expand (1), then to the middle of your chest allowing your ribs and mid-back widen (2), then finally top up beneath your breast-bone (3). So far, so good, you think, this will get a nice full, deep breath and prevent clavicular breathing.

The bit I particularly love about this approach, though, comes next: you let the air out (whether breathing or singing) in the same order it came in. So you use the air at the bottom of your lungs first, squeezing your waist in (1), then your mid-chest, allowing your ribs to contract (2), and then use the top-up under the breast-bone last (3). This guarantees that you keep your support in play right to the end of the breath, and prevents that visible deflation of posture you sometimes see towards the ends of phrases.

Wreaking Order with Wrekin Havoc

WrekinHavocThursday evening brought the quite splendidly-named quartet Wrekin Havoc* over for a coaching session. They are due to be competing in the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention at the end of the month, so our primary focus was on contest repertoire.

The quartet are all members of the Telfordaires, whom I have been directing since January, and I have not only heard them perform recently, I have also coached all four of them as members of the Music Team, although not as it happens all four of them at the same time. So in many ways I had a good prior insight into where they are on their journey, although interestingly knowing the voices and the people isn’t the same as knowing the quartet. The coaching process is still one of discovery.

On the Emotional Shape of Change

emotionalshapeChip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard reports a useful analysis of the emotional shape of projects.* At the start, spirits are high. As you get stuck into the project, people start to get bogged down – things go wrong, unforeseen obstacles emerge – and the initial positive emotional tone drops. As you get towards the end, when you’ve worked through the problems and the finish line is in sight, spirits rise again. These three phases are labeled Hope, Insight, and Confidence.

On Asking Questions in Rehearsal

At last year’s A Cappella Spring Fest I ran a session for choir members about how to get the most out of rehearsals. It was partly about how to prepare for and review rehearsals in between to consolidate, but also about things you can do during the rehearsal itself. One specific item we covered was about asking questions in rehearsal – when and how to do it. I’m coming back to write about this now because I’ve had several conversations about it recently and so it seems a good moment to share those discussions.

From a director’s perspective, questions from choir members are a mixed blessing. On one hand they give you really clear information about the singers’ needs, and how the whole process is being experienced from within the ensemble. This is information we want and need. On the other hand, they slow the rehearsal down by increasing the talk:music ratio, and their timing often distracts the whole choir from the rehearsal focus of the moment.

So, the question is: how do we gather that vital information without breaking the flow of the rehearsal?

Soapbox: On Transcending Technique

soapboxWhen I had been lecturing just a few years, I was entertained to look back and notice how my focus had shifted over time.

During the first year, when I was doing everything anew, content was king: structuring lectures, choosing musical examples, figuring out what amongst the infinite possibilities it was most important for my students to learn. During the second year, when I had a stash of content to work from, I was focused on the how rather than the what: the variety of learning activities, reaching different learning styles. During the third year I mostly seemed to obsess about heating and oxygen levels in the classrooms.

This memory came back to me recently as I reflected on a theme I’ve heard reasonably often when experienced musicians are teaching the less experienced.

Gesturing with the A Cappella Ladies

InnigInnigWhen we planned our trip to Germany, the plan was to start in Munich and then travel up through the country by train to eventually make our way to Brussels for the Eurostar back to England. We were just dithering about which of the many possible routes we could take to do this when the A Cappella Ladies helped us into a decision by inviting me to coach them on the Wednesday after the Barbershop Musikfestival.

Their director since November is Stefanie Schmidt, who was one of the first friends I made at my first BinG! Harmony College back in 2015. I had worked with her in quartet, and it was a delight to work with her now in her capacity as a director.

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