March 2010

Soapbox: On the Value of Metaphors

soapboxMetaphors sometimes get a bit of a rough ride in our scientific world. There is sometimes a sense that talking about, say, voice production in anatomical terms is always and inherently better than what I have heard derided as the ‘pink fluffy cloud school of singing teaching’. Or that precise, concrete performance instructions are more grown-up than expressive imagery. ‘But do you want it louder or softer?’ is the kind of passive-aggressive put-down that players use to tell conductors to stow it with the airy-fairy stuff.

Now, I’m not going to argue against either scientific knowledge or directness of communication. Both of these are Good Things. But I am going to argue that the things they do well do not and cannot replace the things that metaphors do well, and if we replace all our figurative language with literal language, it gets harder to make good music.

There are three things that metaphors do that literal language does not.

How can I retain what I’ve learned?

Retention is the Achilles heel of a performance coach. It’s one thing to go and help an ensemble significantly improve their performance, but unless the coaching results in some kind of longer-lasting improvement, it has not done its job. It may of course have given the singers a good time, so was still a valid use of the session - but there is a difference between a fun workshop and coaching.

There are a number of elements or stages to the process of retention, and I suspect that the secret lies in combining them effectively.

National Association of Choirs Conference 2010

Suzi Digby's seminar (featuring a podium from StackaStage)Suzi Digby's seminar (featuring a podium from StackaStage)I spent last Saturday in Stevenage at the National Association of Choirs annual conference. It was the first time I had attended the event, and as I will be presenting at the 2011 conference, it was really useful to go and get a feel for what the membership were likely to find helpful. I had taken a small trade stand to promote my workshops, and was delighted to find that the venue was organised such that the corporate delegates could also go and eavesdrop on the seminars through the day!

Performance Style in the Age of Recordings

One of the main interpretive challenges to face classical musicians is the ambiguity of notation. The dots on the page are very informative about what to play, but mostly leave us guessing about how. What looks like the ‘same’ notation will carry different expectations for performance style at different points in history and in different places. Formal training teaches the typical answers to these questions, and advanced training provides the research skills to seek out mores specific answers for particular repertories.

Of course, even armed with all the available information – about historical instruments, and the techniques used to play them, about the treatises on performance or aesthetics – the musician still has the imaginative task of converting that into real sounds. An interpretation thus represents a statement of how the performer concludes the music should go.

Now, for people working with popular repertories of the last 50 years or so, the task is very different, since the definitive text is now no longer on paper, but a recording.

Conducting and Common Sense

Greg Beardsell presenting on conductingGreg Beardsell presenting on conductingAt the National Youth Choir’s Young Leaders event the other week, Associate Musical Director Greg Beardsell got some interesting debates going during his session on conducting. He asked participants to position themselves on a continuum between agreement and disagreement on questions such as:

  • Conducting is a skill that can be practised
  • In the UK, choral directors tend to have a lower status than orchestral conductors
  • Conducting is largely a matter of common sense

The Tea-Towel Test

teatowelOne of the minor peculiarities of barbershop culture (as opposed to its various major peculiarities) is the way it uses the word ‘theme’. Generally, if you ask someone what a song’s theme is, they’ll either give a poetic or literary response – love, loss, nostalgia, that kind of thing – or point to the primary identifying melodic idea as you would to identify themes in a Beethoven symphony. But what barbershop judges (well, specifically Music and Presentation judges) mean when they say ‘theme’ is the primary musical element in that particular arrangement.

Now, this can be quite a useful question to ask. The term is odd, but the concept is serviceable. One of the main differences between a performance that sounds like people just obediently singing the notes and words and one that carries musical meaning is a clear sense of what the song’s main musical strength is. What a song is primarily ‘about’ does not always lie in the lyrics: if the thing that stays with you days later is the shape of the melody or the groove of the rhythm, then that should be your starting-point for interpretive decisions.

The thing about a song’s theme, then, is that it can stand alone. The main test for if a song has a lyric theme is if it makes sense to print the words on a tea-towel.

Obsessiveness, Reluctance and Excellence

When I was organising the mutual mentoring scheme for arrangers, I had several conversations in which people said words to the effect of, ‘Oh, I must get round to doing some arranging’. I found this an interesting response because it is so different from my own relationship with arranging – which is probably best described as compulsive.

My first reaction was more judgemental than I like to admit: that the response was tantamount to an admission of mediocrity. If an activity is something you feel you should get round to, you’re just not doing it enough to be any good at it. You just wouldn’t say that if the activity was a regular part of your life’s activity.

Then I noticed I was being uncharitable, so tried to think a bit more openly about it.

The National Youth Choir’s Young Leaders

I spent last weekend in North London at the National Youth Choir’s training event for Young Leaders. In anticipation of the courses they will be running around the country this Easter, the weekend’s purpose was to support those making the transition from choir members to staff. There was a real sense of continuum between the more senior staff members providing the training (most of whom had themselves come through the choir to their current responsibilities), through staff members with some experience and those just starting out, to current choir members exploring the possibility of joining the staff in the future.

Soap Box: Whose Music?

soapboxSome months ago I attended a short workshop for choral leaders which started with a warm-up using the spiritual ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’. It was an efficient and musically interesting warm-up and gave me ideas for workshop activities of my own (which I am sure was the point). But one thing bothered me at the time, and I have continued to mull over it since: the lyric was secularised to remove the reference to Jesus. (Actually, this was nicely done too – after teaching the replacement words, simply a parenthetical comment of, ‘We’re leaving Jesus out of this; he’s got enough troubles of his own.’)

Now, I get the reluctance to promote a dominant religion in a general community context where there may be people from a bunch of different religions present. Religious differences get all muddled up with cultural politics and race and all those other messy by-products of populations with different origins and histories learning to live together. So maybe it’s a good idea not to have Jesus showing up as a potential point of contention.

But I’m bothered by the bowdlerisation.

Mixing Music-readers and Ear-singers

One of the constant challenges the director of an amateur choir is likely to encounter is how to work with a group that includes both people who read music and people who don’t. The two constituencies can have quite different learning styles and preferences, and you want to find learning strategies that work for both.

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