On Breath and Tempo

For the last year or so I have been attending tai chi classes in local parks. I tried it on a whim when I was looking for things to take me away from my screen, and have kept doing it both because it is enjoyable during the session and I always feel good afterwards. It’s good for a sense of balance, both physical and mental.

Recently our teacher, Perry, was making some interesting observations about breath and tempo in the context of the Form (the extended sequence of moves that always features in the last 15 minutes so of the class), and I found myself wanting to reflect on parallels with musicking. Breathing and tempo are, after all, pretty central to our craft too.

On the Whitewashing of Barbershop: A Case Study

Shine on meShine on me

This probably won’t be a long one as I’m not sure I have much more to say than, ‘Uh, look at this, the record needs correcting,’ but we’ll see how we go.

We all know by now that barbershop was originally an African American genre (though there was a considerable level of interchange between white and black traditions in its heyday as a commercial genre in the early years of the recording industry). We also know that when a revivalist movement in the 1930s led to the formation of the Organisation Formerly Known As the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (or TOFKASPEBSQSA as I like to think of it), the new institution not only excluded African Americans from its membership, but also systematically removed any mention of the genre’s black origins from its standard narratives.

It’s very easy to think that was all in the past and that now the historical record has been corrected we’re all done. Whereas in fact there are all kinds of ways in which we’re still living with the legacy of those decisions, usually without realising.

Explorations in Troubled Waters

Continuing with the theme of how returning to regular piano practice is having interesting cross-fertilisations with my vocal-harmony musical brain, today I’m going to share some discoveries made while working on Margaret Bonds’ piece ‘Troubled Water’.

The piece is based on the spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’ and was originally conceived as one of a suite, though it has developed an independent life having been published as a stand-alone piece in 1967. The suite was finally published in its entirety in 2020. I have linked to Samantha Ege's recording;'Troubled Waters' is the 3rd movement, starting at 6:58.

Coaching Conductorless Rubato

The main benefit of online coaching: good screenshots of people laughingThe main benefit of online coaching: good screenshots of people laughing

I spent a rewarding afternoon on Thursday with a quartet who had contacted me for advice about how to manage rubato in an ensemble without a conductor. They formed from within a choir they all sing in so are accustomed to using the visual signals from their musical director to coordinate them, and were finding the lack of this external guide one of the major challenges of singing in quartet, especially in music that isn’t strictly in rhythm.

We split the process into two distinct stages: how to rehearse, and how to perform. The former is where the group develops a shared understanding of musical shape and a shared awareness of each other in the ensemble. The latter needs a repertoire of interpersonal cues to transfer those understandings into the performance situation.

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