Learning

On Musicking in the Moment

Music is, by definition, a time-based art-form, so producing sounds one after another is inherent to its praxis. But, as I explored a few years back, the unrelenting march of musical time can create unhelpful pressures on musicians, and, when not actually performing, it is often valuable to suspend time and let moments elongate themselves around you.

I recently remembered a lovely exercise that Jim Henry did with the White Rosettes at the LABBS Directors Weekend in 2015. He had them sing the target vowel of a particular syllable in the lyric of their song, but without knowing until he signalled whether they were going to sing that word, or another with the same vowel. I forget which actual words were involved, but for example sustaining ‘moo’, without knowing until the signal whether the word was going to become ‘moon’ or ‘mood’.

How Listen and Do at the Same Time

One of the biggest challenges that novice choral directors face is learning how to listen to the singers at the same time as directing them. It sounds so simple, written like that, and is clearly fundamental to the conductor’s task, but as people new to the activity invariably discover, it is easier said than done.

You see, we each only have the one brain each. And if that brain needs to pay a lot of attention to unfamiliar motor skills in the context of complex musical content, it doesn’t have very many cognitive resources left over to dedicate to the sound coming into it. As one acquires experience, the raw panic of overwhelm subsides, but the challenge remains. There is a lot going on when you conduct a choir – all those people singing at once, each with their specific musical and personal needs - and we still have only the one brain with which to process it all.

On Having a Starting-Point

When I sat down to write today, I thought I was going to be using the title ‘the problem with cleaning’ to reflect on the way that the process of cleaning can have the effect of raising your standards of cleanliness, such that the job is never done. It’s not simply that it’s only when you’ve removed the film of dust over everything that you can see the stain on the carpet clearly. It’s that as you give it attention, you just keep noticing more that needs cleaning.

But as I started to write, the thoughts felt awfully familiar, and the search function reveals that I reflected on this experience as a metaphor for rehearsing back in 2011. (I should add that today isn’t the first time since then I’ve done any dusting.)

On Transformative Learning Experiences

I have been reflecting on what makes a transformative learning experience, having had the joy to be involved in a number of them over the first part of this year - some as teacher, some as learner. Enough of them that it’s worth teasing out some patterns to see what they might have in common.

I’ve also experienced a bunch of perfectly normal, everyday learning experiences, of course, where you make useful progress but don’t feel things have fundamentally changed. These provide a useful comparator for the transformative experiences, of course, but I think they’re also key an important part of their context. You wouldn’t want – couldn’t cope with – every learning experience making fundamental changes to how you relate to your praxis. The regular week-in, week-out work is what sets you up for the great leaps forward, and what allows you to consolidate them and embed them in your musical identity.

Key elements to these experiences include:

LABBS Quartet Prelims 2023

Arriving for coaching on Sunday: LABBS media team capture the Reservoir Dogs moment...Arriving for coaching on Sunday: LABBS media team capture the Reservoir Dogs moment...

This past weekend saw The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers hold its quartet prelims weekend. As in its now standard model, there was the contest on Saturday, with many quartets staying on for coaching on the Sunday. This year Sunday also saw the mixed quartet competition in its new, more permanent, home in the British barbershop calendar. Though as I had commitments elsewhere that day I can’t tell you how it went – I’m sure if you head back over to social media though you’ll get some news and some nice pics.

I remarked last year that the LABBS quartet scene was sounding in healthy shape, and you’d have to say the same this year, with the top 11 quartets all achieving scores of 70 and above, and the next 9 or so still in the upper 60s. I was struck as a listener that the standard felt consistently solid: you could spend a lot of the time just relaxing into the performances and not having to listen carefully to help keep things on track. (It’s not just me feels like this when things are a bit wobbly, is it?).

On the Discomforts of Relaxation

There’s an anecdote in one of F.M. Alexander’s books in which he tells of a child he was working with who had had very restricted mobility because of extreme habitual muscular tension. Using the techniques he had originally developed to deal with his own problems with bodily coordination, Alexander unwrangled much of this tension, bringing her body into a much more neutral alignment. Her response was to complain about how strange she felt.

I have been thinking about this story recently in the context of my own challenges in rebuilding my relationship with the piano. Some of my technical work has involved refining what I do with my hands and fingers, but most of it is about not doing stuff with my shoulders, back, glutes, legs, and (more weirdly, as I have got deeper into this process) intercostals muscles and muscles deep in my abdomen.

Prioritising Connection at LABBS Harmony College

Leading a vocal development session with a laughLeading a vocal development session with a laughThe weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers holding their first full Harmony College since 2019. It was fully booked before the closing date for registrations, confounding our expectations that numbers might still be a bit down, as they were for last year’s education events. It was superbly masterminded by its Dean, Debi Cox, who brought her deep understanding of both educational needs and logistical realities to the task. If you see her, tell her thank you again from us all.

Our guest educator this year was Kim Newcomb, and whoever had the idea to invite her also needs to feel pleased with themselves. Kim is not only highly skilled as a singer (most famous at the moment for being a reigning Sweet Adelines International quartet champion), she is also a professional educator, and, it turns out, profoundly encouraging as a human being. One has the sense that she has always been nice, but she has also developed a deep moral commitment to being kind and supportive that underpins her praxis.

On Listening to, and Performing, Familiar Music

This post is the result of two remarks made in different contexts ganging up on my brain and making me think about them together. Both were made by Jay Dougherty during BABS Directors Academy back in January.

The first (well, it came along second, but has muscled to the front of the logical queue for consideration) was in his class on Audio Illusions, where he demonstrated the phenomenon of phonemic restoration. This is where the brain fills in missing or masked fragments in a heard linguistic utterance, leaving us with the impression that we have heard it in its entirety. This is very useful for intelligibility, helping us make sense of what we hear despite environmental distractions or indistinct speech.

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