December 2010

Season's Greetings!

Just a quick note to say Merry Christmas to anyone who pops by over the festive seaon, and to let you know I may be a bit slower in publishing comments and responding to queries over the next few days. Like everyone else, I'll be taking some time to spend with family during the next few days, which will entail rather less time slaving over a hot computer than usual. But normal service will resume in the New Year, so you won't have to be patient for long.

Wishing all my visitors the very best for the holiday season, and looking forward to sharing more musical adventures with you in 2011. Keep warm!

Monkey hear…


The process of communication – whether verbal, nonverbal or musical - is typically theorised with a model based on the postal system. The originator (speaker, composer) writes a letter that they deposit into the postbox of the relevant communication system (spoken utterance for conversation, performing ensemble for music) so that it can be delivered to the addressee (listener, audience).

It’s a model that’s useful for thinking about such things as intentionality of communication, and the dangers of transmission error and misreading. But there are whole other aspects of communication it ignores.

Gesture theorist David McNeill develops a concept of communication that is much more participative. (It also integrates verbal and nonverbal communication rather than separating them out into distinct ‘channels’.) He uses the word ‘inhabitance’ to express the way a conversational group works as an ensemble, creating a world of meaning that they cooperate to maintain and develop.

Social and Musical Ethos

One of the ways for a director to learn about their choir is to go out for eats/drinks with them after a performance and listen intently. Other occasions can offer some insight, but something about the post-performance social brings out a reflective and celebratory spirit in an ensemble. It’s partly because you get a bigger turn-out, of course – though this in turn is a symptom of the bond that is forged in through the culmination of group endeavour.

I’m thinking about this particularly right now as a working majority of the singers in Magenta had a visit to the pub after our last evening gig before Christmas, and I learned something interesting about the choir. One of our members said it was the first single-sex organisation she had been involved with that had no bitching.

Concrete Metaphors for Christmas Rehearsing

This time last year I was complaining misanthropically about the clichéd nature of so many Christmas songs – both in their musical profiles and the imagery of their lyrics. This year I seem to be in less of a bah-humbug mood, and have been delighting in the way the Christmas season can provide a never-ending fund of imagery to help the rehearsal process.

I’ve written before about the usefulness of metaphors as a means to encapsulate complex, multi-dimensional (indeed, artistic) ideas about how music needs to be performed. And the more concrete and vivid the imagery it is, the more memorable it becomes. It turns out that the festive imagery we use to represent the season to ourselves can serve this purpose effeciently, effectively, and cheers everyone up in the process. People like to feel Christmassy, especially when rehearsing Christmas music.

With One Voice...

When I was about 11, we did an art project at school that involved groups of about six painting a life-size portrait of one member of the group. I initially got the job of doing the face, and I was quite pleased with the likeness I produced. However, during a later session when I was not there (I have no recollection of why I was missing), another member of the group completely painted over all my work. I was quite hurt but, typically, didn’t say anything.

This incident came to mind back in the summer, when I was commissioned to revise Clay Hine’s arrangement of ‘I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm’ for The Great British Barbershop Boys’ Christmas album. I am generally reluctant to jigger with other people’s arrangements, but I was reassured that Clay was okay with me doing so, and it was simply a matter that I happened to be available to help out in the timescale they needed. Still, I didn’t want Clay to end up feeling that I’d painted over the face of his work.

On ‘Not Being Able to Sing’

I have had conversations recently with three different women about the phenomenon of ‘not being able’ to sing. Each had brought the identity of ‘non-singer’ with them from childhood, but each now had a different relationship with that identity.

The first has been singing in a choir for a few years now. She joined when she was in her fifties, having believed since the age of 11 that she couldn’t sing, because somebody had told her so. But she always rather wanted to nonetheless, so went along to join the choir with much trepidation and discovered to her pleasure that she could after all.

The second was a participant in a workshop I ran recently who had come along to accompany her daughter. She confessed to enjoying the session, but was worried that she was spoiling it, because she couldn’t sing. ‘But of course I sing to my daughter,’ she mentioned as an afterthought.

Getting the Artistry in Early

I’ve written before about the pitfalls of ‘note-bashing’, but I thought it might be useful to think of the same issue from a positive perspective: the value of working on artistry from the get-go. This is something I learned from my first conducting teacher, Alan Rump, and like many of the useful things he said, it was some years after I left university before I noticed how useful it really was.

The rationale for the idea of ‘first learning the notes, and then putting in the interpretation’ is that - in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy -cognitive needs are more fundamental than aesthetic ones. So people won’t have any attention to spare for artistic questions if they’re concerned about what they should be singing. This is true as far as it goes, but doesn’t mean we need abandon all hope of expressive development until the notes are in – just that we need to be sensitive to the note-learning needs as we work on expression, and vice versa.

The Great British Barbershop Boys: Going ‘Mainstream’

ChristmasTimeThe Great British Barbershop Boys’ Christmas album is due out on Monday, and both the media appearances and availability of samples are ramping up in anticipation. And I’m enjoying observing the responses of the barbershop world with that double vision of both a now-well-established member of it and a musicologist who has spent many years documenting it.

Predictably, there is much excitement.

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