Practical Aesthetics and Emotional Triggers

I mentioned at the start of my recent post on Theo Hicks’s session on Philosophies of Musical Enjoyment that I had been spurred into getting it written and posted by a conversation with a director who hadn’t been there, but might, I hypothesised, find the ideas useful. That post got too long to move onto how he might do so, so I’m coming back to address his particular circumstance separately.

The particular challenge he was facing was working on a song with his chorus that is particularly poignant, and might touch some his singers a bit too closely for comfort as it referenced in its later stages themes of bereavement and loss. Indeed, he found it quite personally challenging himself even without specific recent life events that might be even more triggering.

Obviously, I pointed him towards my post from last year that address this question directly. But after hearing Theo’s session, it occurred to me to wonder whether the different modes of musical engagement he discussed might give a more purposeful and strategic way to manage this.

Theo Hicks on Practical Aesthetics

The final plenary session at January’s LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend was led by Theo Hicks on the topic, ‘Philosophies of Musical Enjoyment: Listening for the Singers’ Joy’. It produced lots of things I wanted to reflect on, and because I kept getting them tangled up I have been procrastinating trying to organise my notes. But a recent conversation with another director who wasn’t there had me wanting to refer to it and so it’s time to try and untangle the thoughts to render them shareable.

The first thing to note the effect that having that title on the schedule had on the weekend’s overall agenda. It put the word ‘joy’ into our common lexicon in all kinds of contexts before any of us know exactly what Theo was going to talk about.

On Getting Out of the Way

Sometimes you find a common theme emerging in a variety of different parts of your life, and it’s interesting to reflect on how the same principle plays out in different contexts.

While arranging

I’m looking at the most recent one first, as it was this that made me notice a pattern. I was working on an arrangement for barbershop contest, and was getting bogged down in chord choice. Everything sounded a bit mannered and awkward.

Eventually I thought to ask myself: if I were just arranging this as a song with no thought of style requirements, what would I do? And the natural chord choice revealed itself immediately. For sure, it was one of those permitted-but-less-conspicuously-ringy chords that the style guidelines discourage in excess, but it just sounded so much better than any of the other engineered solutions I had been playing with. And the right chord for the moment will always ring better on the voices in real time than a choice that is theoretically ringier but expressively counter-intuitive.

Getting into our Ears

The theme for our recent joint LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend was ‘The Listening Director’. It was originally sparked by a request from a delegate at LABBS Harmony College directors stream last year for more work on diagnostic listening skills in rehearsal (initial response: yes that’s very important, let’s do more on it!), and then kind of snowballed from there.

The more you think about the ways and contexts in which chorus directors have to listen, the more it asserts itself as the central skill of the job. It’s more important in many ways than actual conducting skills, because however elegant your technique looks, it doesn’t do any good unless you can effectively hear what you’re getting in response to your conducting. Whilst if you can get your ears into the detail of how your chorus is singing, your gestures intuitively adapt themselves to those needs.

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