October 2009

Singing and Self-fulfilment

Pretty much anybody involved in singing is likely to be proselytising about it at times. They’ll tell you how great it makes them feel physically and emotionally, and how it makes them feel more alive and true to themselves. It can all get a little mushy and self-congratulatory, especially at events that gather a lot of singers together. ‘Singing,’ Bob Chilcott announced to delegates at the Association of British Choral Directors convention one year, ‘can change the world!’

Yeah, so what we do is special and wonderful and powerful and important, but can we just get over ourselves? I sometimes think.

Every so often, though, you come across something that makes you think: this really is special and important and actually not mushy at all. An example would be this account by a lady called Jacqueline of her experience in joining the Reading Barberettes, quoted in Voicebox towards the end of last year:

Soapbox: The SAI Show Package Final

soapboxI spent some of last weekend watching and listening the webcasts from the Sweet Adelines Convention in Nashville, and the ‘show package’ finals had me thinking again about the nature of entertainment and its relationship with competition. I’ve had these thoughts before, but I thought I’d mention them now as they’re current.

How to become excellent

There is a gospel tune that has the hook line: Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.

In choral performance, everybody wants to get better, but nobody wants to change.

On Mental Rehearsal

Self-help books, especially those with a bit of an NLP slant, tell us that mental rehearsal is a Good Thing to do. I’ve often found their exercises in visualisation quite difficult, however – possibly because the type of thinking you’re doing while reading the instructions is quite different from the kind of full-sensory fantasy the instructions tell you to engage in. So for quite some time I thought of mental rehearsal as being some strange and special thing that I didn’t quite get.

Then one day, I was preparing a lecture, and thinking through how I was going to deliver the material – where I could probably raise a laugh, where I would need to pause to let the students catch up, where the focal points to crystallise the key ideas would come. And I suddenly realised – what I was doing was mental rehearsal, and it’s not something special at all, it’s something I do all the time. Anything that takes a spot of planning or anticipation, you can live through in prospect, whether it’s working out what you’re going to say to someone in a non-routine conversation (asking someone out, quitting a job) or planning a rehearsal.

Maybe this is obvious, but it was a revelation to me at the time.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Symphony Hall

Last Friday, I went with my friends from Magenta to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Having heard their sound, both from their own albums and from their collaborations with Paul Simon, I found it something of a revelation to see how they perform too.

Industrial versus Artisanal rehearsal processes

In the world of consumer products, the mass-produced item is cheaper, more plentiful and generally less-respected than the hand-made, bespoke item. This is both because it is replaceable – lose it and you can buy another exactly the same – and because it requires only the ability to operate processes on the part of the people who make it, not the individual acquisition of skill.

We tend to think of artistic products as being inherently artisanal – that is individually-crafted, non-massed produced – but when you think about it there is quite a whiff of the production line about several standard aspects of rehearsal processes in barbershop choruses - and to some extent in mainstream choral societies too.

Singing and Happiness

happinessWe all know that singing makes people happy, but do we know why? Is there any way that we can guarantee the singers we work with get the most out of the experience every time?

The authors of Mind Gym: Give me Time offer a useful analysis of happiness. They suggest that it operates in three dimensions, pleasure, challenge and meaning. Any activity that offers one of these will make us somewhat happy, one that offers two will feel very rewarding, and to get all three in one go leads to a state of rapture.

Arranging for choral or one-a-part groups

I mentioned in my post a few months ago on arranging for 8 parts that I’d need to come back to the question of what makes an arrangement suitable for a choral ensemble versus a quartet/octet – and indeed, what makes an arrangement suitable for either.

Breathing and Musical Time

One of the things that distinguishes skilled from less skilled choral groups is the relationship between breath control and musical structure. To be sure, there are lots of other things that distinguish them, but I find this one interesting for the way that it allows a fundamentally imaginative function – conception of musical shape – to be audible through a physical response.

All singers seem to breathe according to their understanding of musical shape. However, more skilled singers have developed the capacity to choose where this might be. They think about the music and, through a combination of intuitive response and conscious decision, place the breath points in places that group the words and/or notes into meaningful gestalts. That is, they work in phrases.

Less skilled singers seem to experience music in two-bar chunks, and will breathe after each pair of bars whatever is going on in the music and lyrics.

Soapbox: Performance Indicators and Goals

Goals are important things to have for a choir to develop, and performance indicators are vital for letting us know how we’re getting on with achieving those goals. But it’s awfully easy to get them muddled up. So often you hear people stating as goals things that really ought to be performance indicators.

Programming Music History

Alan Davis wrote a blog post back in 2008 about programming, and raised the question about the order of pieces in a mixed programme. His first instinct was to arrange the pieces, which ranged from the 17th to the 20th centuries, in chronological order, but he was also wondering if there were other ways to sequence them that would give a different perspective on them.

It's a more interesting question that it appears on first glance, and it has stayed with me for some time. My initial response was that chronological would raise no eyebrows – since everyone seems to use chronological order – but that it was commensurately the least interesting approach. But two rather more interesting thoughts lurked behind this knee-jerk response, and I’d like to tease them out.

Neurology and the Philosophy of Art

I wrote last week about Iacoboni’s book Mirroring People, and I’m sure you realised at that point that the small point I picked out to discuss was not the only thing I’d found interesting. The central theme of how we become more like each other is at the heart of the questions I set out to address in my book on choral conducting, so if I’m writing about that less here, it’s because I’ve already spent 5 years focused on that question (and indeed, talking about mirror neurons as part of how I answered it).

But there were also all sorts of twists and turns and ramifications in it that I found resonating with questions that musicians fret over.

Does a Choral Director Have to be Able to Sing?

The choirmaster must be, first and foremost, a singer… His ideal should be to draw out from the choir the sort of sound he would like to make if only he could sing all the parts at once (Gordon Reynolds, The Choirmaster in Action, 1972).

All that is necessary is an expressive, well-controlled voice, a kind of common denominator of amateur singing raised to the nth power, with which he is enabled to demonstrate to the chorus what he expects from them in return (Archibald Davison, Choral Conducting, 1954).

Opinions differ to the extent to which a choral conductor needs to have a good voice, though there is a general common-ground of consensus in favour of a reasonable competence.

Arranging to Commissions vs Arranging for the ‘Mass Market’

In a comment on my post last week about getting known* as an arranger, Mark queried why I seemed more interested in arranging for commissions rather than for ‘the mass market’. I made a brief reply there, but his question stayed with me, and made me articulate some things to myself about the process of arranging that I thought might be interesting to share.

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