Choral

On Listening in Perspective

My brother tells a story of taking a photo of a mountain on a family holiday. Knowing that his wife considered pictures of nothing but landscape rather dull, he asked his then young daughter to stand in the foreground. The camera's autofocus produced a lovely picture of her, with the mountain an indistinguishable blur behind.

The happy sequel to this was how useful the picture became when he was teaching Music Technology A Level. He would show the class the photo and ask them what it was a picture of. ‘A little girl,’ they’d all say. ‘No,’ he’d reply, ‘a mountain.’ And then he’d go on to teach them about how microphones don’t give you an objective representation of the sound they pick up, but bring out certain aspects of that sound, depending on the mic itself, the space it’s used in, and what the recording engineer does with the settings.

Musings on Music and Sport

musicsportSince the middle of May the peculiar circumstances of England’s covid restrictions have brought a particular cultural trope to consciousness rather more explicitly than usual. The circumstances have been that singing in groups has continued to be severely restricted while major sporting events have gone ahead, bringing us images of large crowds not only in the stadiums but also in bars, public spaces and in transit.

The trope has been the idea that music and sport are rivals for attention and resources, and that sport is often handed an unfair advantage in this competition. The trope arises in normal times primarily through issues in the scheduling of school activities, which see clashes between for example choir practice and cricket matches, with the expectation that the latter will always take precedence.

On the Aesthetics of Perfection/Imperfection

We strive to perfect our musical performances, yet the idea that something can be too perfect remains a perennial counter-narrative in musical aesthetics. As far back as the early 19th century, ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber celebrated musical imperfections as signifiers of honesty and authenticity, in contrast to the artifice of high skill.

Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ similarly saw the polish of a classically-trained tone as smoothing away the individuality of the singer, in contrast to the vocal texture of vernacular styles, which he heard as vehicle for the singers’ physicality and life history.

Even more recently, Deke Sharon applied this criticism to barbershop in his keynote address at Harmony University in 2018. By prioritising continuity of ring over all other communicative elements, he suggested, the genre creates a shiny sonic carapace that can serve to keep outsiders at a distance, even while it affirms those in the know.

A Day of British Barbershop Director Education

Moments from the LABBS eventMoments from the LABBS event

Saturday saw the best weather we’ve had round here all year, so of course I ended up on Zoom for hours instead of sitting out in the sunshine. The afternoon was taken up by the LABBS Directors Education day, on the theme of returning to live rehearsals. We’d set this theme months ago, before the roadmap was published with no idea that our date would actually fall two days before a major announcement about the next step. One of our guest speakers, Prof Martin Ashley, quoted my email to invite him from back in February:

…we don't know of course exactly where we'll be by June, but some kind of live musicking will almost certainly be allowed by then, although not yet back to what one might call 'normal'

Which as predictions go is about as spot-on as I’m ever likely to achieve again!

Coming Out of the Wilderness

Our second full-chorus rehearsal: this week it didn't rain!Our second full-chorus rehearsal: this week it didn't rain!

Whilst choirs in England are still out in the cold (we are only allowed to rehearse outside as yet), we are at last able to emerge from the Zoom Wilderness. The Telfordaires have now had two full-chorus rehearsals on our regular chorus night, and are rediscovering how to do this ‘singing all together’ lark. This weekend I’m participating in two events at which the return to live rehearsal is a key theme, and this post comes out of my preparation for the experience-sharing I’ll be doing at them.

So, for background, whilst The Telfordaires have had nearly 15 months of weekly rehearsals on Zoom, we have also had a considerable quantity of live rehearsing in small groups since last summer, in 1-hour ‘weekend supplement’ sessions. We got in 14 sessions between August and December (with a month off for November’s lockdown) and were able to restart in quintets + MD in April. So, we’ve had a bit of a run-up to the full-chorus live rehearsals, and have thus been through the process of resumption a number of times.

On Conducting Technique and Tracker Action

This is something of a niche metaphor, but it is nonetheless pretty appropriate for choral conductors, given that the relationship between choir and organ is so ingrained in British musical life as to be the title of a well-established magazine for the sector.

Tracker action is a type of mechanism for linking the keys on an organ to the pipes that make the sound. In modern organs, this is usually done electronically, but the traditional method was entirely mechanical, making the connection with a series of interlinked levers. A university friend of mine, who had spent some time as an organ builder after leaving school before returning to education, described the efficiency and responsiveness of a really good tracker action in words to this effect:

Imagine you are moving this pencil along a table. When you move this end [demonstrates], you don’t have to wait for the other end to follow.

Expecting the Unexpected with abcd

abcdsquareSaturday morning saw me presenting another in the series of webinars hosted by the Association of British Choral Directors, this time in collaboration with Kate Shipway, who had proposed the idea of exploring how people might respond emotionally to the return to live choral rehearsals.

Kate took our minds back to this time last year, when the discourse within choirs was framed in terms of ‘I can’t wait to get back to this, how happy we will be!’ A year on, and people’s attitudes are more mixed – along with the anticipation (and possibly unrealistic expectations), come the anxiety and trepidation associated with re-entry syndrome. And in the time since we last met regularly in person, we’ve all been through some degree of trauma: nature and extent of it varies a lot depending on our individual circumstances, but nobody remains untouched by the experiences of the last year.

Soapbox: How to Stop the Music

soapbox‘Wait! What?’ I hear you cry on reading that title. ‘Why do we want to stop the music?’ Then you remember that this blog talks quite a lot about the choral rehearsal and in that context actually you need to stop the music quite regularly so you can work on stuff. It’s very inefficient to carry on to the end every time, especially when the bit the singers need help with happens in bar 3.

The question arose in a Music Team training session about leading singers in small groups. We had discussed the two modes of leading the singing available, as a conductor, or as a member of the ensemble, and the parallels and differences between them. (Actually that could merit a blog post of its own one of these days.) We’d covered the process of starting the music in each mode, but hadn’t specifically addressed how to stop it.

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