December 2011

Recruitment to Cults and Choirs

I was listening recently to a Stuff You Should Know podcast about cults and thought reform, and it made me notice how a number of areas I have been interested in as both scholar and musician interact even more than I had already noticed.

The first is my discussion in my first book of how barbershop positions itself relative to the musical mainstream in analogous ways to the way a sect positions itself relative to established churches. The second is the discussion in my second book of the disciplinary techniques that choirs of all kinds use to ‘convert’ the raw material of people into appropriately thinking and behaving choral singers. The third is my current research interest into the mechanisms of charisma in conductors and performers – which has led me right back to the sociology of Max Weber I was dealing with in the first.

Semantic Depletion as Coaching Strategy

A couple of years ago, I was mulling over the challenges that semantic depletion presents for performers. This is where repetition of an individual word sound (or musical element) gradually renders it meaningless by stripping it from its linguistic (or musical) context. The problem for performers is that rehearsal necessarily involves lots of repetition: so how do you refine and perfect your execution of the performance without detaching yourself from its meaning?

More recently, though, I’ve been finding that there are situations in which semantic depletion can work in your favour.

Adrenaline and Vocal Performance 2: Practical Strategies

The Yerkes-Dodson curveThe Yerkes-Dodson curve

In my previous post on this subject, I looked at some of the effects of an over-active sympathetic nervous system on singers in performance. This often gets framed in terms of stage fright/performance anxiety, but the fight or flight response can also be responsible for bringing us into a state of peak performance. We don’t want to damp down this response completely; we just need to moderate it so we get the benefits of its stimulation without losing control.

A classic bit of research back in 1908 produced the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which shows that people perform least well at complex tasks if they are either under-aroused or over-aroused, and at their best somewhere in the middle. So, the strategies that follow all work on the principle that you need to keep performers below the optimal level of arousal before they get to the stage. This will allow the flush of adrenaline as the performance starts to lift them into the ideal zone, rather than beyond it.

Adrenaline and Vocal Performance

manicA discussion over on Choralnet from a couple of weeks back has prompted to me write about a phenomenon I’ve been thinking about for a while. The main subject is about the role of the conductor in performance, and its relationship to the rehearsal process – itself an interesting subject, but not my focus today. Rather it was the passing comments about managing individual voices and balance issues in performance that caught my attention.

What struck me was how the participants in the discussion took it for granted that this would be needed, even in the context of discussions about carefully-prepared performances. And this resonated with conversations I’ve had recently in which people have expressed disappointment at hearing voices popping out in performances by ensembles they thought had a better grasp of choral craft than that.

Stanislavski’s Urlinie

actor-preparesStanislavski’s An Actor Prepares is one of those books about which I’ve been thinking, ‘Must read that someday,’ for years. Someday arrived by chance recently when I spotted it on the ‘recently returned’ shelf at the library and picked it up on an impulse. And by now of course wished I’d read it years ago.

Back when I was teaching Musical Philosophies and Aesthetics to the postgrads at Birmingham Conservatoire, a frequent subject for discussion was the relationship between the text and the performer. Is the performer a creator or merely a puppet? How can a performer speak with their own voice whilst still being true to the composer’s message? What, exactly, is interpretation?

The Crucible of Charisma: The Wilderness Years

The stories of many charismatic leaders feature a period in the wilderness. In the case of Jesus, of course, the wilderness is literal, and provides both the archetype and metaphor used to describe the experience in others. Hitler, for example, spent much of the 1920s as an obscure, fringe political figure - indeed, he wrote Mein Kampf in prison; you don’t get much more marginalised than that. Churchill, meanwhile, spent much of the 1930s out of government and swimming against the prevailing political tide in his criticism of the appeasement policy.

(As an aside: it is a truism that charisma itself if morally neutral, and can be turned to positive or malign effect. A corollary of this is that a useful initial-plausibility test for any theory that purports to explain charisma is to see how well it generalises to both Hitler and Jesus.)

So, there are two dimensions to the wilderness phase that I have been trying to tease out which may be significant.

Baby Steps and the Abuse of Metaphors

jackWhen people are in the early stages of a learning process and feeling a bit daunted, you’ll often hear them being encouraged to ‘take baby steps’. Now, actually, I think this is good advice (for reasons I’ll get onto later), but the way it is usually articulated completely misreads the metaphor. People say ‘baby steps – little by little’, as if the adjective means miniature version of normal steps, rather than steps as taken by babies.

This post from the Bulletproof Musician is a case in point. I feel a bit mean picking on it, since mostly I really admire the articles over there (and if you haven’t been over there before, I encourage you to spend the rest of the afternoon having a good browse). And actually, the basic point of the article – that small incremental changes in behaviour add up over time to significant improvements in performance – is sound. But that’s kaizen, not baby steps.

Soapbox: Deck the Lyricist

soapboxI seem to be back in a bah-humbug mood this year over seasonal songs. After last year’s metaphorical extravaganza, I find myself getting curmudgeonly over some of the lyrics bestowed upon us by the Victorian reinvention of Christmas. It’s not so much the clichés that exercise me this year (though I’m only restraining myself becauseI’ve said all that before), as the general poetic ineptitude.

First, for a mild example: Carol of the Bells. This is a Ukrainian carol, furnished with English words by Peter J Wilhousky. The basic message works okay with the music – the narrative of the winter air alive with merrily-jingling bells chimes with the obsessive motivic repetition in the music.

But there are persistent bumps in the prosody. Take this verse for instance:

Building Choral Stamina

marathonI’ve had several conversations recently with directors about the challenges involved in learning big pieces. Big implies, at the most obvious level, pieces that go on for longer than usual, though that also usually brings with it a degree of expressive size too. There are three distinct dimensions to the stamina demands these pieces place on a choir, and while they are interrelated, it’s worth identifying them separately:

Keeping it Real

For all that all choral genres generally share an overall sense of shared ethos (executive summary: singing is a Good Thing To Do), moving between different traditions can throw up some interesting challenges. I had an interesting Facebook chat recently with a singer who has plenty of experience in the kinds of choir that simply ‘stand and sing’ – i.e. where it is about the music, not about the performers. He was talking about some of the challenges he’d had in moving into a world that was much more focused on personal expressiveness.

What he found was that, while he was quite comfortable finding his way into the mood of the music in a general way, his peers were asking for a more active narrative, particularly in the way he used facial expression. ‘And at this point ,’ he said, ‘one of two things tends to happen:

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