On Vulnerability

The leadership literature, both conductor-specific and general (which, come to think of it, I usually read through the lens of the conductor’s role), often talks about the importance of allowing yourself to be vulnerable as a means to inspire trust. This is usually framed in terms of admitting when you don’t know something, or that you need help.

All of which, on the face of it is perfectly reasonable. A leader doesn’t have to be omniscient or infallible to be effective – which is just as well given that human beings are typically neither. And I’ve always read these pronouncements with a degree of complacency, since I am very comfortable sharing my fallibility. I’ve known myself long enough to know how well developed my capacity for truly dumb errors is, and am endlessly grateful when people spot them for me.

Building the Arc with Norwich Harmony

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Note that’s ‘arc’ with a C; whilst it was a bit rainy in Norfolk at the weekend, we didn’t need to construct emergency rescue vessels for us and all land mammals on this occasion. But we did have a productive time thinking about expressive musical shape and how it relates to both narrative and vocal legato.

I have visited Norwich Harmony for coaching days several times over the years, but this was the first time I joined them for a full weekend’s retreat. They had an interesting model, choosing a venue that consisted of a number of holiday cottages around a central courtyard and event room. Most of the catering was organised within the groups sharing each cottage, except for a bring-and-share dinner on Friday and a meal delivered by outside caterers on the Saturday.

More On the Relationship of Structure to Detail

I recently reflected on how Abby Whiteside’s book Indispensables in Piano Playing had helped bring into focus thoughts I had been toying with about the mapping of the structures of a body that plays music onto structures implicit in the music itself. The other set of thoughts she helped bring to the surface were about theoretical traditions in how we think about music.

Those of you with a background in academic music will recognise the distinction between structure and ornament, and the idea of shunting attentionally between different levels of structure (surface details to mid-range and longer-range processes) as belonging to the theoretical tradition generally taught in higher education under the banner of Schenkerian Analysis.

Listening Louder with the Sussex Harmonisers

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I spent a happy Saturday workshopping and coaching with the Sussex Harmonisers at the weekend. They have an interesting set-up: one club, with one board and music team, but two choruses, one male-voice, the other female-voice, which also currently share a director (though they haven’t always done so). The two choruses operate largely independently as ensembles, with separate rehearsal nights, but the shared infrastructure allows them to coordinate and collaborate on repertoire and performance plans.

Saturday was their first shared education event, and they devised a very effective model for it. In the morning, I worked with both choruses together in a workshop themed ‘The Listening Chorus’. Then after lunch, they took it in turns to have 45-minute sessions of coaching on songs from their respective repertoires, with the other chorus listening.

On the Relationship of Structure to Detail

Sometimes you find a thought sloshing around the back of your mind in an intriguing but unfocused way for quite a while, when suddenly you come across something that brings it sharply into focus. I’ve had a couple of these recently, both sparked by the same stimulus.

Towards the end of last year I read Donald Weed’s What You Think is What You Get, in which he makes a distinction between axial and appendicular functions in the skeleton, and, consequently, between postural and gestural dimensions of bodily use. This is in itself a useful concept to have to hand when learning motor skills. It is very easy to put all our attention on the bits that are specific to the task in hand ( e.g. conducting, playing piano, chopping onions, to take examples from my own life), whereas the success of these specialist, gestural movements is to a significant extent dependent upon how well we are managing the general, postural use of the self.

Musical Knowledge and Musical Enjoyment

I’m coming back today to a topic that Michael Callahan raised in response to my post about Practical Aesthetics earlier in the year, and which I noted as a big one that deserved separate reflection. The question is this: to what extent does an audience need to be informed to enjoy a performance?

Michael’s comment was framed, to match the post he was responding to, in terms of knowledge of musical aesthetics, but I think the question extends further to concern other aspects of musical knowledge: style, genre, technique. Do you have to understand what the musicians are doing in order to enjoy it?

Concentrating the Energy in Berlin

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Sometimes you find a single overarching theme for a coaching visit encompasses a range of areas to work on that initially seem quite disparate. Having the chance to listen to the group in advance increases the chance of spotting this in time to set the agenda from the outset. Such was my experience with Women in Black in Berlin last weekend.

Their recordings from the previous week’s rehearsal revealed a chorus with a clear sense of expressive intent, bringing a lot of energy to their performance. (I learned afterwards that their previous coach, Lisa Rowbathan, had done a lot of work with them on story-telling; that this came over in the recordings as a conspicuous strength is a testimony to her effectiveness.) I arrived with the aspiration to help them harness that energy in a more focused fashion to help them realise that intent more efficiently, both so that they didn’t have to work so hard, and so that their intentions would be communicated with greater clarity.

Choral Breathing and the Quest for Perpetual Legato

I’m on record for feeling somewhat critical of the practice of choral breathing – that is, of singers in a choir managing their breathing points by breathing whenever they feel like, so long as it’s at a different time from their neighbours, and they do it in the middle of a vowel rather than shortening a syllable.

I have heard people promoting the idea in terms of vocal freedom, and actually this argument is a compelling one its favour. People are most likely to tense up and get anxious while singing when running out of breath, so if you remove that as something to worry about, they’ll sing with both greater emotional and physical freedom. I do like this rationale, though I am still concerned about the dissociation of technique from musical narrative, and the way that it actively prevents choral singing being a good training ground for solo singing and single-voice-per-part ensembles.

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