May 2011

Maintaining the Equilibrium

This article first appeared in Mastersinger in Spring 2009, just before the publication of my second book. It resonated with some conversations I’ve had recently, so I thought it could do with a more general airing

The Theory

Argyle and Dean’s ‘Intimacy Equilibrium Model’ describes how people adjust their behaviour in social situations so as to maintain a level of social intimacy that they are comfortable with. The original study focused on personal proximity and gaze, and found that people look at each other for longer and more frequently when they are physically farther apart, and avoid so much eye contact when they are closer together. Later developments have included other ways of creating or inhibiting personal closeness, such as smiling, topic intimacy (that is, how much personal information about ourselves we are willing to share) tone and/or volume of voice.

Hubble Bubble

To get your lip-trill started, try playing with a toy tractorTo get your lip-trill started, try playing with a toy tractorI spend a goodly amount of time encouraging vocal ensembles to use the exercise of ‘bubbling’ in their rehearsals. By ‘bubbling’ I mean singing on a smooth, continuous ‘brrrr’ sound such that the lips are vibrating together. It’s also sometimes called a ‘lip trill’. It is a wonderful tool, and I thought it might be worth saying a few words both about why it’s useful, and how to get better at it if you are one of the people who find it tricky at first to do.

Vocally, it achieves two things. First, it develops the continuity of airflow that you need for legato line. Quite often people use the word sounds as a way of sneakily conserving air. Consonants such as t or p are made by momentarily obstructing the airstream, and if you hang onto them you can make the air in your lungs last a bit longer than it would otherwise. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of breaking up the music. Bubbling removes all obstructions to the sound and thus teaches us how to sustain the flow of air throughout the phrase. When people are first learning to bubble, their instinct is often to give a fresh burst of sound for the start of each syllable, and they find when they learn to smooth it out that they are having to breathe in a much deep and physically-engaged way.

Rhythmically Fascinating Once Again

Warming up on Saturday morningWarming up on Saturday morningI was back in the Bristol area for the weekend to work with Fascinating Rhythm chorus. Since I last coached them they had had a very successful contest experience, scoring an average of 71.8 at LABBS Prelims in April,* a significant jump in their scores since the previous November. One of the questions that we faced for the weekend was to what extent was a case of out-performing themselves as a fluke and to what extent it represented a leap in standard that was capable of consolidation.

I realised overnight on Saturday that I had been pushing the chorus considerably harder than I had on my last visit, and reflected that it was probably a subliminal response to their new higher scores, and in two dimensions. On one hand, I was responding to assumptions I had about the working methods and levels of discipline and stamina it takes to get to a level that scores in the 70s, so was going in to work at that level of intensity. On the other, I was expecting a certain standard of performance, and anytime I didn’t get it, I worked at getting the quality up to that suggested by their recent success.

The 5/30 Practice Programme: the Details

On Wednesday I outlined the background and rationale for an experiment I’ll be running during June to see what difference 5 minutes practice a day actually makes for the participants. Today I’ll outline what it will involve and how to join in.

What You Need to Do

  1. Do the Practice Routine (see below) every day during June
  2. Keep the following records:
    • Every day, note whether or not you actually did the routine
    • Once a week jot a few thoughts down about how you are finding the experience (maybe 30-60 words)
    • At the end of the month, write a brief summary of how you’ve found it overall (maybe 80-120 words)
  3. At the start of July, email me your records

Does 5 Minutes a Day Make a Difference?

We all know that if you practice between rehearsals, you develop skills faster and retain more of the music learned than if you don’t. And everybody I know always intends to do more between rehearsals than they actually do (including me of course).

I was at a workshop recently where we were being exhorted to practice various exercises regularly as a way to improve our vocal skills, and being assured that just a few minutes a day would make all the difference. And it occurred to me that the problem with this message isn’t its content, it’s the follow-through: everyone agrees with the principle, but do they do anything about it? (Well, they might a couple times in the following week…but then Real Life takes over again.)

I came away with two questions from this:

  1. How much difference does ‘just a few minutes’ a day actually make?
  2. How do you get people to do it?

On Over-articulation 2: the Musical Approach

Last time I looked at this subject, I was considering the vocal issues that need addressing to smooth out a choppy line – namely continuity of airflow and getting the vowels in line. But I’ve also been thinking that an overly wordy delivery is also a symptom of an overly wordy way of thinking about music.

Maybe I should put that more positively. When you see a performance that you could criticise as choppy or over-articulated, you can usually also congratulate it for its energetic commitment to the message in the lyric. You never doubt that the singers know what the song means, and you can tell very clearly which bits they like best. They have nailed comprehensibility and communication – though seemingly at the expense of choral tone.

Sweet Adelines in Birmingham

Symphony Hall's central thoroughfare, thronged with chorus singersSymphony Hall's central thoroughfare, thronged with chorus singersThe weekend saw Sweet Adelines Region 31 come to Birmingham for their annual convention. Symphony Hall is an expensive venue for this kind of event, but it does provide a wonderful environment. It’s not just that the auditorium is designed so well for acoustic performance (the judges remarked they’d never been at a contest venue of this size before without people needing amplification), but the social areas are so nicely integrated into the city. Of course I could be biased about my home patch, but I’d like to think I’m grateful for good venues wherever they can be found!

Both quartet and chorus contests were of an impressive quality. Both had clear winners out in front of the pack (Finesse and Forth Valley Chorus respectively), but 2nd-5th places were hotly contested in both competitions, giving a real excitement to the results. And in the lower-placed ensembles, all the performances were of creditable quality – all managed to make entertaining contributions to the weekend.

Open-Entrance Excellence

This post is a follow-up to my last one about the question whether there are choirs that don’t audition but nonetheless achieve a high standard of performance. We have established that such choirs exist, and the question is, what are they doing that other non-audition choirs which don’t achieve such high standards aren’t?

This is something dear to my heart; indeed, I’d almost say it’s part of my primary life-project to work out how not to have to choose between excellence and inclusion. I’m greedy, I want both – and I think it is possible to have both, though I recognise that it takes longer to achieve than picking one or the other.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but a collection of observations about choirs which appear to out-perform the skills their members first turned up with:

Unauditioned Excellence?

I had a letter recently from someone who has returned to singing since retirement, telling me about his musical journey, and asking some specific questions about choral life. I’m answering here because I know the issues he is grappling with are ones that many other people in the choral blogosphere care about deeply too. I’ll start with a few (edited and anonymised) extracts from his letter so you can get a feel for where he’s coming from:

You remember the slogan “Sport for All”? My abiding passion is “Music for All” or specifically “Choirs for All”… I spent a lifetime in comprehensive education, a lot of it in the inner city, so the issue of social inclusion was important to me and [the cathedral choir] seemed to me to be about choral apartheid. … I don’t think that “Music for All” needs to preclude choral ambition.

Picking the Right Tempo

I’ve been thinking about tempo a lot recently in performances I’ve been listening to, and how we develop perceptions about what is the ‘right’ tempo for a piece. It’s one of those interesting questions because there are no absolute right answers, but as listeners we still have a pretty reliable sense of when a particular choice feels appropriate.

So, to state the obvious: most pieces of music have a range of speeds at which they will work well. The metronome looked like a major advance for composer control-freakery, but even with pieces that have precise speeds specified in the text, there are still musically plausible performances possible at faster and slower speeds.

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