On the 5% Rule, and Other Errors of Thinking

Joanna Russ, whose detailed analysis of critical strategies that thwart female artists I have had reason to cite before, makes an observation about the constitution of anthologies and curricula in the study of English literature. Quite reliably, about 5% of the writers represented will be female. It won’t always be the same women listed, as different editors bring different interests to the task, or focus on different nationalities or time-periods, but the proportion is remarkably stable.

You can check this if you like. After all, Russ was writing back in 1983, surely things have got better now? I did with The Oxford Book of English Verse, published in 1999, and it is up to about 6%, so that gives you a measure of historical progress. Ahem.

Anyway, I have been aware of this form of tokenism for some years, but have only recently started getting an insight into how it works, thanks to the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and Rolf Dobelli, who have done such sterling work in diagnosing habitual errors of thinking.

Genius and Bad Faith

battersbyThe conversations about race and repertoire that I mentioned just after the Sweet Adelines International Convention continue to thrive in both public and private spaces, and continue to present all of us with much food for thought. Today's post is in the genre of 'trying to nurture a vague hunch into full thought-hood'. If you are reading this, then I managed to articulate it enough to have something to publish...

The hunch is this: that the way classify certain cultural artefacts as 'art' or the product of 'genius' serves to protect them from genuine critical scrutiny. We may analyse them and discover cultural values that encode oppressive social relations, but that analysis does not dent the work's reputation or place in its canon. If anything, it just makes it look more important to be subject to all that attention: musicology as clickbait.

On Stereotypes and Agency

A participant in the debate about race and repertoire I reflected on recently made one of those passing comments that don’t pass, but insist on staying in your head demanding to be thought about. It was about when Black singers perform music that portrays Black stereotypes: ‘but she is African American and it is her choice to make for whatever reason’.

Now, it is clear what the tension is here that people are trying to resolve. The portrayal of African Americans in blackface is quite transparently imposing a dominant culture’s representation on people who are afforded no agency in the cultural process. The reputational damage is direct and undisputed. But if African Americans themselves sing lyrics that might be thought to evoke such stereotypes, does this suggest that objecting to those stereotypes is being over-sensitive? Can we use the performances of Black singers as information about what kinds of lyrics are okay?

BinG! Harmony College 2016

Welcoming the assembled delegatesWelcoming the assembled delegates

Over the weekend I was back in Oberwesel with my friends from BinG! (Barbershop in Germany) for their Harmony College. Like last year, I come home with a note-book full of ideas to digest and a heart full of the nourishment you get from events that are intensive both musically and interpersonally.

As an experience for repeat visitors, it offered both continuity and familiarity, and a sense of change and renewal. You could say this of the faculty list, which included returners from last year like me, returners from previous years, and faces completely new to BinG!, and also of the content and organisation of the school. New for this year were opportunities for quartet singers to participate in the college choruses, a taster ‘extreme quartet experience’ scheme intended to make quartet activity accessible to those who didn’t have a quartet to come to the school with, as well as a different selection of classes on offer.

The Patriarchy-Compensated Slope

The arguments against affirmative action are often articulated in terms of equality and meritocracy. If it’s not fair to disproportionately offer opportunities to traditionally privileged groups, then it is equally unfair to give a leg up to those who have traditionally been excluded from opportunities. Equality should mean equality; the playing field should be level.

Which, on the face of it is not an unreasonable position. It reminds me of my arguments against trying to get people to sing sharp as a cure for sinking pitch, or telling people to raise their chests when you just want them to stop slouching. An intervention that would actually spoil things if applied to the world as it should be is not necessarily a helpful intervention.

Notes for Female Directors of Male Choruses

Linda Corcoran sets a good exampleLinda Corcoran sets a good example

Actually, directors of any gender, and of any kind of choir can follow this advice to good effect, but I am highlighting that particular profile for two reasons. Firstly because the gender norms of personal presentation make it more likely for female than male directors to run into these issues, and secondly because if they are only directing male singers, they are less likely to get helpful feedback on them from within the group.

These are all simple things to get right once you notice them, but there’s no reason why everybody has to discover them the hard way. So, one of the purposes of this post is to have a resource to share periodically to help people make good decisions about stagewear.

Kahneman’s System 1 and Unconscious Prejudice

kahnemanDaniel Kahneman’s ideas about two different kinds of thinking helped me better understand two major areas in which I have long-term interests. I wrote about the first, the acquisition of skill, the other day. Today we get to mull over the thorny issue of unconscious prejudice.

Conversations about inequality and its impact in daily life are often fraught with anxiety and defensiveness because nobody really likes to think of themselves as unfair. Even more the case, nobody likes being accused of it - whether that is benefitting from an unfair advantage bestowed by others (aka privilege) or behaving differently to others along established lines of social hierarchy.

But research shows that many of the endemic structural inequalities we find in material terms are evident in social attitudes even of people who disapprove of them. Identical job applications are read more favourably when associated with a male name than with a female one. Measurements of pupil dilation show a more positive response to pictures of white faces than of black. Unconscious prejudice is clearly rife, but by its very nature is hard to identify and therefore hard to address.

On Sopranos, Stereotyping, Sexism and Strain

I have been mulling over an interesting blog post shared by a friend recently. The writer, Mari Valverde, has some very interesting things to say about the misogyny implicit in cultural stereotypes of the soprano voice and the practical consequences for how composers and arrangers tend to write for it. I think she is really onto something, and she has made me think about the question of voice-part stereotypes (which I explore in various ways in both my books) in some new ways. I also suspect there are some aspects of the question she is tangling up, so I wanted to spend a post teasing out how my own thoughts are developing in the light of her ideas.

So, the following are factors that feed into the phenomenon of exhaustingly high tessituras in soprano parts:

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