January 2013

Perfection, Imperfection, and the Usefulness of Dialectics

mozbeetAs I threatened in my recent post in which I had a somewhat tangential rant arising from Deke Sharon's defence of imperfection, I have also had some thoughts about his central point, that a cappella has become too obsessed with tuning.

Now, this plugs into well-established discourses of musical taste, which I have written about before. The unfinished, the unpolished acts as a signifier of honesty and authenticity. A perfectly-schooled facial expression and impeccable etiquette can hide secret thoughts - it may be diplomatic, but is it to be trusted?

Neuhaus, Gat, and Self-Awareness

Heinrich NeuhausHeinrich NeuhausI was thinking after a recent bout of piano practice about the way Heinrich Neuhaus apparently framed his teaching. There are three areas of knowledge you need, he contended: you need to know the music, you need to know the instrument, and you need to know yourself. I don't know the flavour of this usage of 'to know' in Russian, but it seems, when rendered into English, to imply both savoir and connaitre in French. Which is interesting in itself, but not what I was intending to write about.

What I find interesting about this concept of learning pianism is how different it is from the technique-focused approach typified by Jozsef Gat. Gat goes into endless detail about the mechanics of fingers and arms, joints and levers, whereas Neuhaus just leaves these as an empty gap in the middle, between that which is played and that which plays. It feels akin to the school of thought in conducting that says (I paraphrase), 'Bugger stick technique, you need to study the work and study the orchestra'.

Soapbox: Musical Emotion, Musical Style

soapboxEmotion has a funny relationship with the nature/nurture divide. We tend to think of it as purely natural, since a lot of our emotional responses are involuntary. If it just happens to us without the intervention of our own will, it can't be a learned response, we assume. We categorise it more with digestion than with language acquisition.

And indeed, there is a substrate of primary emotional states that are cross-cultural. Joy, fear, anger, grief - we can recognise these states in people with whom we have nothing in common but our shared humanity.

But when we talk about feelings evoked by the arts, we are usually not talking about these pure forms. The emotions a novel or a symphony inspire are more subtle, mixed, contextual. And for all that 18th-century guff about music being a 'universal language', not everyone makes sense of an unfamiliar musical style on first acquaintance. Primary emotions, like the need to eat, may be universal, but the way we celebrate their full possibilities in culture develop local cuisines.

JaZZmine and the Nature of Hearing

jazzmineWhilst I write up all my full-day or full-evening coaching sessions and workshops here (for the combined purpose of reflecting on them for myself and the enesembles, and for sharing what we learned), I don't always write up shorter sessions. An hour by Skype has a different rhythm to it from a 2-hour+ intensive. It tends to be more about sorting out details and consolidating partly-grasped areas of development than breaking new ground.

But sometimes one of these sessions will throw up something that is really asking to be written about, either for the practical techniques involved, or for what it can teach us about how people think musically. Or, in this case, both.

Have Quartet, Need Music...

Reasonably often, I get emails from people who have just started a new barbershop quartet (or, less frequently, chorus), asking for advice on finding music to sing. So I'm writing this so I can do a thorough reply which I can send out repeatedly, rather than writing a new sketchy reply to each new request.

So, the first thing to say is, if you wanted someone to say, 'Here, you should sing this, this and this,' you are asking the wrong person. I just don't store large lists of songs in my head like some people do, I have research skills instead. But I'm not going to spend hours doing song research for you, since you could do that yourself and cut out the middle man.

Rehearsal Technique: Singing in Fast Forward

There is a rehearsal technique that emerged during the early months of Magenta’s existence that we have continued to use because it is rather effective, and I have been finding it useful to reflect on why it works. Its primary purpose is for memory work - for getting a piece that is basically learned off the page and securely into our brains - but it seems to have all kinds of benign unintended consequences.

The technique works like this. We sing the whole piece through with the music two or three times in succession (two if we’ve already run through it during the rehearsal, three if we’ve only looked at patches so far) very quietly and very fast, then drop the music and sing it at the correct volume and tempo from memory.

The pertinent elements of the technique are, I think:

The Performing Persona and Technologies of the Self

That's a very poncy-sounding title isn't it? It's a classic example of starting off with a simple, practical question, and discovering that miscellaneous bits of cultural theory lodged in my brain from past research projects are actually quite helpful in thinking through the answer. The title only comes later when it's time to write it up...

So, the question that started this all off is: how can we, as performers, remember to do all the stuff in performance that we have prepared in rehearsal? There are all kinds of things that an ensemble will have considered in their performance preparation, and that the members 'know' to do, but you find yourself half-way through a song and realise that you're not doing something you should be, or are doing something you shouldn't (through ignorance, through weakness, through your own deliberate fault...).

Dealing with Habitual Mistakes

Something that all musicians have to cope with, whether in their individual practice or working with ensembles, is fixing passages that 'always go wrong' (sometimes with the addendum, 'however much we practise them'). There are two issues to deal with here, neither of which can be fixed in isolation:

  • the ingrained pattern of actions that routinely pull the music off-piste
  • the negative emotional response associated with this moment - what Oliver Burkeman has called the 'psychological flinch', or 'ugh response'.

Singing in Confidence...

singingpracticeComedian Jo Brand used to talk of an agony aunt who had received a letter from a man whose girlfriend considered him inadequately endowed. (Bear with me, this metaphor becomes relevant shortly...um, no pun intended...) She wondered who these women were making such comments - surely they should realise that if you observe that it's small, it just gets smaller...and smaller…

This sequence comes to mind whenever I'm working with singers and someone gives the remark that something sounds tentative or lacking in confidence. They may be right (they usually are), but it is the kind of observation that will elicit exactly the opposite response than the one needed.

On Mouthing the Words

A reasonably common conversation I have with directors when working with them on their technique is to suggest that they could usefully stop mouthing the words to the music they are conducting. They very rarely ask why (it is generally known to be a good idea), but they do object that it is very difficult. Well, I’m not going to argue with that.

But it’s probably worthwhile reflecting both on why people find it hard to stop doing this, and why they can become better directors if they do. It’s not so much that it’s a bad thing (though it can introduce specific technical flaws), but that it limits what you can achieve with your singers.

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