May 2009

Back to (Old) School

Old SchoolOld SchoolOne of the highlights of the BABS Convention in Llandudno last weekend was the masterclass by International bronze quartet medallists, Old School. This is a quartet made up of singers who have been highly successful in previous quartets - I lose count of how many previous medals they have collected between them over the last twenty years. Their current mission is not merely to be successful in contest, however, but to be successful in contest with really traditional barbershop songs and arrangements. And it would be hard to find four voices better suited to remind the world of the sheer sonic pleasure available from this kind of purist approach.

There were two particular things from the masterclass that I put by for later mulling-over:

Back from Wonderlland*

I spent last weekend at the British Association of Barbershop Singers annual Convention, which this year was held in Llandudno. It was a rich and stimulating weekend with much both to learn from and to warm the heart – both musically and socially. And the setting was gorgeous – it would be easy to have a very pleasant weekend there even without a couple of thousand of your friends to sing with!

I came out of the quartet semi-finals on Friday night with some interesting observations about the relationship between stage presence and vocal resonance.

Influence 4: Authority

authorityAuthority is perhaps the most obvious principle of persuasion, and the one the conductor relies on as a matter of course. People are more likely to comply with people they consider to be credible as experts or leaders. So, getting the job title of Musical Director goes a long way to helping you get your way in rehearsal.

It’s not always as simple as that of course. This principle relies on its effectiveness not so much on the actual expertise of the authority (useful as that will be in all sorts of ways), but about their perceived expertise. Whether or not their estimation of skill is accurate, a choir member who doubts your capacity to do the job undermines your legitimacy, and thus your power to persuade. It can be as arbitrary as thinking that a woman should not be directing a male chorus (yes, that has happened to me).

Jonathan Rathbone on Breath-points

Jonathan Rathbone working with SerenataJonathan Rathbone working with Serenata
One of the things I discovered when sorting through my notes from the Sing A Cappella day at the end of March was a whole collection of comments by Jonathan Rathbone on the subject of breath-points. It seemed appropriate to bring them all together into a themed post, since, while each is interesting in its own right, when piled up together they give a more developed sense of his musical perspective.

Capital Re-Connection

On Sunday I went back to coach my friends in West London on the songs they will be taking to Llangollen International Eisteddfod in July. It’s amazing how fast four hours can zip by working on three songs! I was pleased to discover that they had really internalised the work we did last month on the blue notes in ‘At Last’ and made that feel their own, which freed us up to explore other aspects of the music.

On the way home, I spent quite a lot of time reflecting on the coaching process, and in particular the way that barbershop’s particular musical practices set up some significant cognitive challenges for singers.

Influence 3: Self-Consistency

The second of Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion is self-consistency. That is, people are more likely to go along with something if they perceive it as aligned with commitments they have already made. This one has a lot of potential for the choral director I think. It has power for both good and ill, so needs handling with care.

End-of-Semester Reflections

Well, my second semester musicianship class on vocal close harmony is over. The students have had 11 one-hour classes on a style that was completely new to them, and have each produced an arrangement which they’ll record in a quartet with three other students for their assignment. Consequently, my last class teaching activity for the year was working with the quartets to refine their performances prior to the recording session – a fine way to end the year in my view!

One of the things I have always enjoyed about this class is the way it combines specialist, technical learning with very holistic, general learning.

All Ship-Shape and...

I spent a happy day on Saturday coaching Bristol Fashion chorus and their director of two years, Craig Kehoe. As I was there for the whole day, we had plenty of time to explore their music in some depth, including work on different types of swing, embellishment strategies, the relationship between emotion and vocal colour, as well as some of the more colourful harmonies.

The area I spent most time thinking about on the way home, though, was our exploration of the relationship between Craig’s gestures and the singers’ voices.

Influence 2: Reciprocation

reciprocationThe first of Cialdini’s principles of influence is the idea that people are more likely to agree to something if they feel it is in return for something they have already received. This makes intuitive sense, of course. But an interesting twist to this is that people will feel indebted even if the thing they have been given was unsolicited, and even if it is something they’re not particularly interested in. This is why Hari Krishna people give flowers before soliciting donations. You may not want a flower, but once you’re holding it you don’t feel so comfortable about not giving anything in return.

So, what is the conductor’s version of giving someone a flower?

Soap-box: The Baritone Part

soapboxThe standard method for arranging in the barbershop style sees three of the four parts constrained by particular rules. The lead has the tune, the bass goes below the lead and takes the root or the fifth of the chord, and the tenor should sit on top and move by small intervals, never greater than a fourth.

This means that the baritone part gets, as the cliché has it, all the left-over notes. It hops above and below the lead line to fill in the chord, and is constrained neither by rules of pitch content (it can take any note in the chord) nor type of movement (it can move by any interval). So it is defined entirely in negative terms – it is what all the other parts are not.

How much practice do you need?

The cliché goes: Amateurs practice until they get it right; professional practice until they can’t get it wrong.

This is probably quite a good generalisation. What I find interesting is that I usually hear it from amateurs who have completely misinterpreted it. It is trotted out in support of a rehearsal strategy that involves endless drill and the desire to be able to ‘do it the same every time’.

Now, I’m not knocking reliability in performance. It’s good to know that you can produce the goods in front of an audience without screwing up. I’m just questioning (a) whether drill is the best strategy to achieve it and (b) whether it is the best use of rehearsal time. After all, as Kaplan points out, the goal of rehearsal is to change things, not to make them the same.

Influence 1: Introduction

Robert Cialdini’s Influence is one of those useful books that gives a nice clear framework of ideas that can be applied in all sorts of situations. It presents findings from an extended research project dedicated to finding out what common techniques are used by people who are successful persuaders. There’s a good summary here.

I thought it might be useful to see how we might use some of these techniques to enhance our choral rehearsals. The musical director, after all, is in the business of persuading people to behave in particular ways, and we all find that some behaviours are easier to change than others. There are six themes that Cialdini explores:

Arrangement Day Reflections

Arrangers deep in discussionArrangers deep in discussionWell, I’ve been collating the notes taken during the morning’s breakout sessions at last Sunday’s arrangers’ day (attached at the bottom of this post), and mulling on a number of miscellaneous other things that struck me during the day. Thanks to Katherine, David and Anne for taking the notes, by the way – it’s made a nice reminder for those who were there to participate, and something useful to share with those who couldn’t make it.

The following miscellany draws mostly on the afternoon’s workshop singing through people’s work-in-progess:

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