Excellence

Thoughts on Barbershop and Musical Comedy

The shibboleth in barbershop circles is that any attempt at comedy has, first and foremost, to be sung well if it is to work. The better it’s sung, the funnier people will find it. This post unpicks this assumption: there’s something to it for sure, but I don’t think it tells the whole story.

The reason why this generalisation seems generally plausible is, I think, because ‘well sung’ functions as an effective proxy for ‘thoroughly-rehearsed’ and ‘has high standards’. Ensembles that develop their skills in one of these dimensions typically improve in the others too. Lurking behind the truism is the memory of mediocre performances that were not very well executed as comedy, didn’t have enough jokes in them (those they did have being rather obvious), and that were also not very well sung.

But this is a case of correlation, rather than causation. It’s not necessarily the fact that they’re singing better that makes a successful group more funny. In fact, these two dimensions are at least moderately dissociable once you’re beyond the base level of ‘does the audience trust your skillset?’

Performance and Skill-Development

During the Telfordaires’ penultimate live rehearsal session of 2020, I found myself uttering words that I had not used since early February: ‘That’s about ready to perform, now.’ Not that we had anyone to perform to as yet – whilst we have negotiated our way round the logistics of covid-safe rehearsal, we are leaving the complications of adding an audience to the occasion until the Spring, when hopefully case numbers will be down and social occasions commensurately easier to manage.

[Edit: and between scheduling this post and its publication we went back into lockdown so we're not going to be rehearsing live for a bit now either. Deep sigh. Hang on in there, friends.]

But that moment got me reflecting once again on the relationship between performance and skill-development. I’ve written before about how the experience of performing repertoire contributes to its development in ways rehearsals can’t reach. To say something is ready to perform doesn’t mean that it’s a finished product (we’ve got plenty of work still to do on that song), but that it is at a stage when not only is it good enough to be worth sharing, but performing it will make it better.

The first thing that struck me was that the extent to which this process contributes to a choir’s development varies considerably depending on your typical performance patterns.

Socially Distanced Singing, and Other Practice Gadgets

Socially-distanced rehearsingSocially-distanced rehearsing

One of the responses to my recent post On Singing Solo Safely talked about how the rehearsal protocols we need for live rehearsing also affect the sense of safety singers experience in rehearsal:

Singing in masks and socially distanced is another example where the safety of the wall of sound disappears and singers can often only hear themselves.

To which I’d add singing outside and in smaller groups as other things that dilute the sonic envelope around us. Indeed, of all of these, singing in masks is the least of our problems; they may feel like they symbolically gag us, but their effects on the music are minimal compared to the effects of the inverse-square law of sound.

Bibliography, Peer Group, and Framing

Back when I used to teach musicological skills to postgraduates, I used to encourage them to think about their bibliographical work in terms of defining the academic community which their work would enable them to join. The people you read to develop your ideas are also your ideal readers: your aim is to persuade those with whom you argue to adapt their views, and to offer something back in thanks to those whose work has facilitated yours.

Philip Ewell’s work on music theory’s White racial frame has got me thinking about this idea in a new light. This is how he opens his blog post on ‘New Music Theory’:

In Living a Feminist Life Sara Ahmed adopts a simple citation policy: she does not cite any white men. Further, she speaks of how “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings”. Citations can also be antiracist bricks from which to create our dwellings. In citing an author we grant them legitimacy and authority, potentially turbocharging their worth to the field. Historically, the only authors who get so turbocharged in music theory are white males.

Directors Connecting

dirday2020Saturday 13 June was supposed to have been the day when directors of LABBS choruses convened from around the country in Coventry for our annual training event. Instead, we met online. On the bright side, it meant that costs for both individuals and organisation were negligible, and notwithstanding all the drawbacks of the medium, it was wonderful to get everyone together. It is wonderfully supportive community.

Inevitably, the shape of the event had to change. Instead of a whole day, we shortened it to an afternoon in recognition of the obstacles to focus and engagement on Zoom. And the practical training model I was so looking forward to sharing, involving small groups working on the intimate connection between gesture and sound, will necessarily have to wait until we can get into a room together once again to make that connection.

Persistence versus Productivity: the Artist’s Dilemma

Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando follows its eponymous hero(ine) through several centuries of English history, from late medieval times to the ‘now’ in which Woolf was writing. When I first read it in my mid-teens, the thing that stayed with me, even more than the colourful panoply of history, was the relationship Orlando had with his/her art.

S/he aspired to be a poet, and was working on an epic work called ‘The Oak Tree’. (Goes off to check I’ve remembered that correctly…yes I did.) For much of the book, it is never quite satisfactory, and s/he keeps reworking it. Which, given the apparent immortality of the author, means that every time literary tastes change, the poem has to be re-written in the forms and styles of the day.

My 16-year-old self took this as a cautionary tale. If you wait until you have got something absolutely ‘right’, you may never get there, as what you consider to be ‘right’ might have changed in the interim. Obviously, for normal mortals like us, the problem isn’t the transition from Renaissance to Restoration styles, but that sense of shifting goal posts is still an issue.

Thoughts on Performance and Skill-Development

Over the autumn and winter I found myself teaching two courses designed to bring relative novices up to a decent foundational level of skill. One was the Initial conducting course for the Association of British Choral Directors that took place on four Saturdays in Newcastle between October and February. The other was the Learn to Sing in Harmony course hosted by the Telfordaires for 90 minutes each week on our first six rehearsals of the new year.

I found myself having the same conversation with more than one person on each of these courses, where they would remark that they had practised at home and were confident they could do a particular musical task, but when came to the next session it suddenly became much harder. In the former case, it was about how the beat patterns for 2, 3 and 4 seem simple until you add other things them like cueing, or indeed listening to the singers you are leading at the same time. In the latter, it was about how you can sing your part perfectly well by yourself, but it becomes a lot harder when you add the other three parts into the mix.

Reflections on FICA19

Overall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha CliathOverall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha Cliath

I know I said I wasn’t going to be blogging until I’d written and presented both the papers I’m committed to in November, but I have some processing to do after last week’s extravaganza in Aveiro, Portgual. The event combined the annual Festival Internacional de Coros, hosted by Voz Nua choir, with the inaugural choral stream at the Hands On Symposium, running in parallel with piano and guitar streams. I was presenting a keynote at the symposium as well as forming one third of the jury for the festival competitions.

It’s the first time I’ve been directly adjudicating (as opposed to overseeing examination processes) for a few years, and it turns out that my handwriting hasn’t improved any in the interim. I endeavoured to be generous in my comments; I just hope I was also legible. I am sure the competitors will get in touch about anything that’s too cryptic!

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.


Archive by date

Syndicate content