Musical Identity

Thoughts on Belonging, Part 2

In my previous post I reflected on the problematics of creating a sense of belonging at events. Why do some people sometimes feel horribly left out at an occasion when most people are feeling happily connected? What can we do, when organising events, to make that less likely to happen?

Finding some common patterns in my own and friends’ experiences of alienation (Scenario 2 experiences as classified in my last post) seems like the best place to start to increase our understanding of what’s going on. I’m intending to anonymise both the sources of these tales, and the events at which they took place, which risks making it all rather abstract. Of course, I’ll know the details of what I’m inducing from, so I’ll be able to learn effectively from the experience. I just hope I can present it in a way that isn’t too unhelpfully vague for everyone else!

Thoughts on Belonging

I’m writing this post (or maybe posts, I don’t know how much this will develop) not because I have answers, but because I have questions. The need to feel a sense of belonging is one of the more fundamental levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and has received in-depth attention as to how it operates in organisations in Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code. (And how this plays out in choral rehearsals is the subject of my article in Choral Directions from a couple of years back.)

So, the general understanding of what a sense of Belonging feels like, and how it is generated, is in place. My questions arise from my own experiences and conversations with friends about their experiences. It’s not a huge sample I’m working from, but it is big enough for some striking patterns to emerge; I’m confident that where I draw on my own experiences to theorise about wider things in this context that it’s not just me, other people have been through very similar experiences.

On Voicings for Mixed Barbershop Choruses, Part 2

In my previous post, we considered why mixed barbershop presents vocal challenges that are quite distinct from the single-sex forms of the genre. (In a nutshell, the standard distribution of vocal ranges for a single-sex group is a camel, but for mixed groups is a dromedary.)

We also considered some of the impacts of this structural feature. It affects individuals singers, as quite a few in any mixed chorus are likely to end up singing out of their best range. It also affects the group as a whole, through the impact of people singing outside their best range on the sound, and/or through difficulty populating the parts in an optimum balance. That post didn’t mention the expressive impact of singing out of range, but it’s something I’ve touched upon before more than once.

On Voicings for Mixed Barbershop Choruses

I am returning to this theme as a lot of people are grappling with the challenges of making a genre developed for and within single-sex ensembles work with mixed groups. Having interacted with a number of different ensembles in various capacities in recent times, I wanted to collate what I’ve learned from them about the difficulties they’ve faced and the solutions they have found.

First, though, it is worth thinking through why mixed barbershop can prove tricky, before looking at the consequences for lived experience, and what we can do about it. This may turn into more than one post; it has the feel of a question that expands as you think about it!

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.

The Cultural Politics of Authenticity

Social media is often a colossal waste of time, but you get an interesting and nuanced discussion on a subject that is both practical and principled just often enough to make it worth keeping looking at it. I’d like to reflect on one such discussion I saw amongst a group of choral directors recently, as the various contributions teased out a range of perspectives on a thorny question.

The question was whether a British choir should assume Puerto Rican accents to sing songs from West Side Story. A director had asked their choir to do so, but some of the choir’s younger members were ‘appalled’ at what they considered a racist request.

Some of the participants in the discussion supported the conductor on the grounds of musical authenticity. It would sound silly in choral British accents, they contended, and recommended reference to the original film as a guide. (Though I’d think reference to the recent remake would be a better guide from this point of view, since it uses actual Latinx actors for those roles, not white actors in brown-face as many are in the 1961 version.)

On Assessment Systems for the Arts

Whilst I’m no longer directly involved in assessing music in either competitive or educational settings, I still regularly interact with a variety of institutions that use them, and so still find myself thinking about how they work. The users of these systems – competitors, examination candidates, and the teachers and coaches who support them – often have a slightly conflicted relationship with them. On the one hand, they value the external validation that the systems offer, while on the other, they don’t quite trust them to recognise the value of the artists they judge.

I recently saw a disgruntled teacher complain about the feedback a student had been given on the grounds that art is ‘subjective’ – and thus by implication that what the examiner had criticised could have been a legitimate choice rather than a flaw. This is one of those comments that is both totally right and maddeningly wrong; it captures an important truth but also misses a whole lot of simultaneously true things. And as it’s quite a common discourse for grumbling about assessment in the arts, I felt it was worth unpacking a bit.

Reflections on Gender in Songs and Performers

Back in the early days of this blog I wrote about how some songs are gendered, either implicitly or implicitly. Sometimes it’s just a surface effect of pronouns, and you can readily adapt the song to an ensemble of the other gender either my changing a few words or by abandoning the assumption of heteronormativity. Other times, the persona’s gender is built more deeply into the song’s lyric and/or musical material and is less susceptible to switching.

At the European Barbershop Convention I found myself articulating a couple of thumbprints of implicit gender more consciously than I had before. One was the way some songs lie on the patriarchy-compensated slope: they build giving away power as a token of commitment, the lyric goes down on one knee, so to speak. When sung by a male persona, this mitigates a cultural context of inequality; when sung by a female persona, it exacerbates it. ‘All I possess I surrender,’ is an expression of superlative sacrifice from a man, but for a woman it merely indicates a willingness to return to the oppressive norms of yesteryear when that’s what happened by law when you got married.

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