Musical Identity

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.

What is Vocal Freedom anyway?

VFPlogoHaving shared some of the background to The Vocal Freedom Project in a previous post, I thought it might be helpful to explore in a little more depth what I mean by the phrase ‘vocal freedom’ in this context. It is one of the ideas that is both multidimensional and holistic – you can think about it from a number of different angles, but in practice they all work together in a single, unified experience.

The Physical Dimension is the most obvious, in that it is the one we are most likely to directly perceive in ourselves and in others, both visually and aurally. We find physical freedom by shedding extraneous muscular tension – that is, muscular engagement that isn’t doing anything productive. Tongue, jaw, neck, shoulders, glutes are all areas we tense up when under stress then never quite loosen off again when the immediate stressor goes away. Our bodies get locked up, our breath becomes shallow, and we hear this in our voices as strain and loss of resonance. Vocal Freedom Project workshops start with the body as the dimension which is both most accessible and usually the most urgent to address.

On Creative Choices, Creative Intentions

Some of the voicings I have been puzzling overSome of the voicings I have been puzzling overOne of the orthodoxies of my musical upbringing and subsequent teaching life is that the performer should respect the composer’s intentions. In practical terms this entails, at the basic level, playing the music presented in the score accurately – i.e. all the pitches written, in the durational relationships represented by the notation.

This basic level is never really challenged, though it is inflected as you move educationally beyond a literalist approach to the score to understanding it as a document emerging from a historical and cultural context. ‘Style’ is the shorthand term used to embrace the range of types of information used as filters through which to interpret the written score: changing notational conventions, changes in the construction and thus sound of instruments, changing aesthetic ideals and their impact on tone production, articulation, timing, and embellishment.

Introducing the Vocal Freedom Project

VFPlogoToday tickets have gone on sale for the first of what will probably become a series of workshops called the Vocal Freedom Project. We’ve got quite detailed info about the VFP’s rationale and aims over on the project page, but I thought it might also be useful to give a little background into its genesis.

The project was born in a conversation back in early December with my friend Myra, who sang with me in Magenta for ten years. I can’t remember exactly how she phrased her expression of her need to sing, but she crystallized a lot of the observations I had been making over the months since live singing had restarted in the UK about what the lockdown experience had done to people’s voices.

Strictly/Frisson Double-Bill

Warm-up pic snapped at a particularly invigorating momentWarm-up pic snapped at a particularly invigorating moment

Last Thursday evening saw me coaching Strictly A Cappella, having spent the afternoon coaching Frisson quartet. Both ensembles are preparing for a concert coming up next week – and if you think the timing of the coaching is surprisingly close to the performance, you’d be right. Our plan had been to work together the week before, but Covid had other ideas.

Still, when you are working that close to a performance you get a very distinctive kind of energy and impetus to the experience. With both groups we romped through far more music than you would when digging deep at an earlier stage of preparation, with all attention focused on how to enhance the impact of music that is already essentially well under control.

The Performer’s Inner Family

bodykeepsthescoreI’ve recently finished reading The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. Its primary focus is the treatment of trauma, a specialised pursuit that has no direct relevance to my personal or professional lives. But in the process of explaining the difficulties experienced by people who have been damaged by shock, tragedy or abuse, he gives many and varied insights into how our internal landscapes - our memories, our sense of self - work.

One chapter particularly resonated with an experience of musicianship I have observed in both others and myself and called out for some reflection. Chapter 17 deals with a form of treatment called Internal Family Systems therapy, and is predicated on the idea that the self isn’t a single, unitary entity, but rather a mosaic of different parts.

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