February 2010

Back in Amersham

Amersham A CappellaAmersham A CappellaI spent last Tuesday evening with my friends Amersham A Cappella, who had extended their usual rehearsal time and sacrificed their tea break in order to fit in as much coaching time as possible. The main agenda for the evening was working on an up-tempo number that they learned last year intending it for contest, but mothballed when it didn’t quite come into focus. So this was music they knew quite well – they weren’t struggling to remember notes and words – but did not have an ingrained imaginative or interpretive approach to it. In other words, it was ripe for an investigative session – indeed, the singers’ palpable desire to pull it into shape is what made the evening really productive.

We found ourselves using filmic metaphors frequently – not an unusual technique for me, but the results were quite striking and got me reflecting on the ways in which they work. There were three dimensions they were helping us in on this occasion.

How much do we know what we’re doing?

John Mayer: music as intellectJohn Mayer: music as intellectAndrew Downes: music as feelingAndrew Downes: music as feeling

At one point we had a pair of composition teachers at Birmingham Conservatoire who seemed to get on very well, but nonetheless had diametrically opposed views about how we should approach music. John Mayer used to harangue me over the photocopier about how music was nothing to do with the heart, but was an intellectual pursuit, while the then Head of Composition and Creative Studies, Andrew Downes used to say that you should never analyse anything, it should all come from the heart.

Managing Stage Fright

At last week’s session of the Inspire Your Choir course I’m running for MusicLeader West Midlands, we had a really fruitful discussion about how to help our singers go into performances calmly and confidently and be happy that they can deliver their best to their audiences. It included lots of practical tips, and gradually three main themes emerged:

Hedonic Adaptation: The Sequel

So, when I wrote about this last December I got as far as articulating the following question:

How do we give our singers enough opportunities for repetition to embed the skills that need automating without dulling their imaginative response to the music?

I have subsequently marshalled some of the thoughts that started to teem in my brain in response. There are several strategies you can take, each of which spawns its own set of rehearsal tactics.

Return to the Spires

Having a healthily celebratory momentHaving a healthily celebratory moment
Last week I found myself back with my friends at Harmony InSpires in Oxfordshire. I last coached them back in September, and it was encouraging to hear how their sound had improved in accuracy and clarity in the intervening months. We found some common themes with my last visit as well, though – it’s a rare choral group that can stop thinking about breath support and legato in just five short months!

The thing that has stayed with me most from this session, however, was nothing to do with the specifics of technique and rehearsal method we went through, but was about the chorus’s relationship with the sounds they are producing.

Dealing with Vocal Stereotypes

One of the participants on the course for choir leaders I’m currently running for MusicLeader West Midlands asked an interesting question as we chatted after this week’s session. She took over a long-established choir (with well-entrenched ways of doing things) about a year ago and is gradually inveigling them out of old habits and into new ways of doing things. One of the things on her to-do list is finding ways to help her sopranos produce a sound that is less hard and shrill. We came up with some solutions together during our conversation, but I kept thinking about it afterwards too. So, this post is for Clare.

Many Hearts Beating as One

heartbeatI’ve just spent a happy weekend working with Heartbeat chorus at their retreat in rural Derbyshire. The chorus booked en masse into a small college about 40 minutes’ drive from their usual rehearsal venue to spend a full two days away from the distractions of everyday life focusing on their repertoire for the Sweet Adelines Region 31 Convention in May.

It was a wonderful luxury to have that much time available. It meant we could focus in on details and get them sorted out without feeling we were short-changing the rest of the song. We spent a lot of time exploring the arrangements by duetting, and as ever, the opportunity to hear and understand how the other parts interact with each other brought clarity and colour to the performance, as the singers intuitively let the detail of the arrangements through. Indeed, I felt that I came home a better arranger after having lived with the inner details of the work of David Wright and Ed Waesche for a weekend.

Do I Have to Use Beat Patterns?

One of the areas of choral directing in which there is the greatest disparity between text-book ideas of good practice and what happens in real life is in the use of beat patterns. The orthodoxy is that they provide the correct method for conducting a choir, and they provide the foundation of most approaches to teaching the craft, yet the literature remains full of rude comments about the technique of choir leaders who depart from them – real conductors, it seems, are quite happy to ignore the othodoxy.

As in most well-entrenched debates, each position has its virtues, and real life tends to involve finding a way to sail a coherent course between the polarised points.

Radio Moment

I just found out that I was on the radio this afternoon! It was a repeat of the programme I did a couple of years back on key characteristics and synaesthesia, and it is available on Listen Again for the time being (I would guess for a week, as that seems standard).

On Musical Comprehension

musicianship.JPGWhen I first started singing lessons at age 14, I was introduced to those standards of voice training, Vaccai’s exercises and Schirmer’s collection of 24 Italian songs and arias. At this stage, I was singing Italian phonetically – I knew the general gist of the words from the translations, but in expressive terms it was much like playing Mozart arias on the clarinet (which I also did around that age). Then at university I took Italian classes for 3 hours a week for a year, thinking it would be useful for someone taking voice lessons (and actually, interesting for someone who liked studying languages).

It was some years later again when I returned to the old Schirmer volume to revisit songs I had learned in my teens and had the bizarre experience of going through the motor actions I had learned to create the sounds, but now understanding the words I was singing. Bizarre and rather fun, I should add – I always enjoy the sensation when bits of my brain that hadn’t really connected before discover they have something in common.

The Cultural Politics of the Concertina

Over on This Blog Will Change the World, there is a quite wonderful post from last November laying out the aesthetic manifesto of the 'concertina-brow'. To give you a flavour of it:

The Concertina Brow reserves the right to enjoy any artistic product, activity, food, beverage, or cultural artefact of any kind, with no regard for the degree to which his tastes may or may not align with highbrows, middlebrows, lowbrows, or any other brow style of which we may not be aware. The fact that a cultural artefact was favoured by Dead, White, European Males is of no significance, either positive or negative. The opinion of his contemporaries is likewise completely irrelevant to the Concertina Brow, with the exception of individuals whose critical acumen he respects. "Popular" and "unpopular" are terms neither of approbation nor contempt.

But do go and read the whole thing – it’s worth the visit over there.

Now what the concertina brow does very well here is to navigate a coherent course between the oft-conflicting discourses of taste and quality.

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