Performing

Coaching Conductorless Rubato

The main benefit of online coaching: good screenshots of people laughingThe main benefit of online coaching: good screenshots of people laughing

I spent a rewarding afternoon on Thursday with a quartet who had contacted me for advice about how to manage rubato in an ensemble without a conductor. They formed from within a choir they all sing in so are accustomed to using the visual signals from their musical director to coordinate them, and were finding the lack of this external guide one of the major challenges of singing in quartet, especially in music that isn’t strictly in rhythm.

We split the process into two distinct stages: how to rehearse, and how to perform. The former is where the group develops a shared understanding of musical shape and a shared awareness of each other in the ensemble. The latter needs a repertoire of interpersonal cues to transfer those understandings into the performance situation.

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.

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.

Dynamic Times with Norwich Harmony

On Monday evening I zoomed in for an hour with the Music Team of Norwich Harmony. They are in the process of learning one of my arrangements and wanted to talk through several aspects of it as a way of both verifying and deepening their understanding of the music. They chose an ideal moment to have the session – they all clearly know the song well enough to know what kinds of questions it asks of them, but are still fluid in their conception of it.

A theme that came up in a couple of contexts was dynamic shaping. One team member remarked on the way the sheet music doesn’t contain any explicit indications (‘there aren’t any Ps and Fs’ is how she put it), but the music clearly doesn’t want to just to be all at one level.

BABS QuartetCon 2021 – Further Random Thoughts

Having thought I’d corralled my main responses to our first weekend of live barbershop contest in two years in my previous two posts, I find a collection of miscellaneous thoughts popping intermittently into my head. (And where else would you expect thoughts, miscellaneous or otherwise, to pop, you ask.)

  • Key choice for Mixed Quartets. Back in 2012, my reflections on the UK’s first mixed quartet contest included observations about how the genre requires people to be flexible and creative in how they adapt to different voice parts and the ranges they might lie in when turning a genre that developed in and for voices working within largely the same range into one that encompasses a much wider set of vocal ranges.

    I find myself somewhat surprised, nine years on, how relatively few quartets really seem to have nailed how to pitch their songs so that the parts lie in the parts of their respective singers’ voices where they sound the best. You particularly notice it with the lead part – as curator of the melody, the heart of the song, you really want the tune to sit where the expressive ranges in their voice map coherently onto the expressive shape of the song. Quartets that didn’t compromise on this gave themselves such a head start in terms of communicative impact.

BABS QuartetCon 2021 – The Musical Experience

Kiera Smith's photo captures a focal moment of a barbershop contestKiera Smith's photo captures a focal moment of a barbershop contest

Having discussed in my last post the experience of going to a largely normal barbershop contest in the Covid era, it is time actually to talk about the musical experience – which is, as I understand it, the point of going to these things!

My headline impression from the weekend’s listening was that, vocally, the British barbershop community is sounding in pretty good shape all things considered. Of course, this impression is strongly shaped by the classic logical error of survivorship bias - by definition only those people who feel their voices are reasonable shape are likely to put themselves forward to perform on the contest stage. Indeed, a couple of competitors withdrew after the programmes were printed; we don’t know how many others self-selected out at earlier stages.

Pitch and Paraverbal Expression

Last summer, Stefanie Schmidt visited the Telfordaires to lead a really interesting workshop on paraverbal markers: those elements of speech that don’t show up in written words but which carry so much extra information. Salience, attitude, strength of feeling, context all shine through in the inflections with which we pronounce anything we say.

A lot of singing technique involves, in the initial stages, learning to strip out the accidental lumps and bumps that these markers can insert into the vocal line. Two key elements of an effective legato are getting the tone running consistently through all notes, not just the ones that carry sense-laden meaning, and controlling consonants so they don’t add scoops or cut short vowels.

But the texts we sing still carry meaning, so part of learning to operate our voices at will is to be able to decide when and how to use paraverbal elements paramusically: articulation, timbre, dynamics.

Distraction Techniques in the Choral Rehearsal

A recurrent theme in the 3rd and 4th books of the Hitchhiker Trilogy is the technique of how to fly: you throw yourself at the ground, and miss. Obviously, the throwing bit is easy enough; the knack is to get sufficiently distracted during the brief moment before you hit the ground that you forget to finish the process. This leaves you suspended in the air, and the then trick for staying there, and indeed for swooping around and travelling about the place by flight, is not to think too hard about what you are doing.

Like many of Douglas Adams’s whimsies, this is both absurd and weirdly wise. Its very absurdity makes it a vivid metaphor for getting into that state where you can get on with stuff without crippling yourself with over-thinking or self-criticism. In Inner Game terms, it’s about silencing Self 1.

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