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On the Belief-Capacity Relationship and Choral Stereotypes: A Case Study

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Some recent email correspondence about an arrangement of mine turned into a fascinating practical case study in a couple of areas I enjoy theorising about. Normally in this situation I’d make a point of anonymising my correspondent, but since he or she didn’t actually sign any of their emails, it’s kind of a moot point. (This isn’t actually relevant to the story; I just wanted to share the oddness with you!)

Anyway, whoever wrote to me is a chorus director whose chorus had recently purchased copies of my arrangement of Happy Together without consulting him/her, and he/she was dismayed to discover it features a good deal of bass melody. The leads in his/her chorus apparently cannot do harmonies, despite many years of trying, so would I give him permission to re-arrange it with the leads on the tune.

Quite why you’d need to re-arrange the music in this situation rather than just moving the people around I wasn’t clear, but since they’d asked, I took the opportunity to nudge towards the possibility of a spot of skill-development. I suggested that there may be some leads in that section who might be willing to stretch themselves a bit, and some basses who might enjoy the chance to sing some melody, so an option would be to give them the opportunity to try something new, and just swap over those who were totally daunted by the part as written.

For anyone else who is thinking about how to develop their leads to sing harmony, indeed, I’d say that this arrangement isn’t a bad place to start. It’s not unduly complex as harmony parts go, and it repeats a good deal, so once you’ve learned a bit you often get to use it again. And the leads do get the tune in the chorus, for a bit of light relief for everyone.

No, came the reply, none of the leads could do anything except the melody, which is why they were leads rather than baritones.

This exchange was an interesting example of two ideas I had been accustomed to think about separately, but may turn out to have more interrelationships than I had thought.

The first is the idea that our belief systems both facilitate and constrain our capabilities, as suggested by both Carol Dweck’s work on mindset and the Dilts Pyramid. The director of this chorus regards teaching leads to sing harmony as essentially impossible. They may claim that many years of trying and failing is the source of this belief, but it’s clear that while that they hold this belief, their leads don’t have any chance of proving them wrong.

Realistically, anyone who can learn to sing a melody well enough to be a useful contributor to a barbershop chorus can also learn to sing harmony. They may find it counter-intuitive at first, and keep slipping back onto the tune, but gentle persistence and an appropriately incremental approach to the challenge will see them improve. That’s how musical skill works. Pretty much the only thing that will stop them is a fixed mindset that sees their current skill set as the only one available to them.

The second idea is that of part stereotypes, something I’ve written about in both my books. Like gender stereotypes, these are socially-constructed collections of attributes believed to be inherent to people who sing a particular part. The identities are in some ways rooted in physiology – vocal range is ultimately a function of larynx size, although very few choral genres use anything like people’s full range potential – but are elaborated into expectations for all kinds of behaviours and personality traits.

These stereotypes serve in part to guide people into how to be as a singer: what they are expected to be able (and unable) to do, what kind of behaviours will be welcomed or seen as inappropriate, what kind of personal idiosyncrasies are permitted. But they also serve to homogenise a choral culture, to suppress individuality, and thus limit participants to these sanctioned behaviours.

If you have ever met people who sing in a chorus, you may have discovered that in fact not all leads are exactly the same. They probably do all share a strong response to melody, but their relationship with it, and thereby with themselves as singers, can vary considerably. Some quite like the thought of singing harmony every so often; of those that find the thought a bit scary, some will be willing to take on a challenge and others more reluctant. In much the same way that some like the thought of singing in quartet and others really don’t. Like carpets made of natural fibres, singers display considerable natural variation.

My correspondent thus got me thinking that Essentialism – the belief that people have inherent qualities according to race/gender/voice part – is a very pervasive form of fixed mindset. Saying ‘Leads can’t harmonise’ is like saying ‘Girls can’t do maths’. Both beliefs are to an extent self-fulfilling: leads are more likely to struggle with harmony, girls are more likely to struggle with maths, if the people teaching them these skills think this way.

But, whilst stereotypes can discourage certain behaviours, they never completely prevent them. Some girls persist in being good at maths despite the pressure of low expectations, some leads (in fact, a working majority of those who have ever attempted it), can actually sing my arrangement of Happy Together.

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