February 2013

Musical Emotion and Musical Culture


Further to my post last month exploring the way musical genres carry with them characteristic patterns of feeling, I came across a rather wonderful project to chart emotions that have words in other languages but not in English (hat tip to Sarah Foster for the link).

A century ago, Saussure gave us the idea that it's not just the signifier (the perceptible signal) that is generated within the system of a particular language, but also the signified (the mental image the signal evokes). There are things that you can say in one language that you can't say in another. As the Italians put it: traduttore, traditore.

On Comedy, Music and Retroactive Inevitability

Retroactive inevitability was a phrase used by the late Roger Payne, parody-writer extraordinaire, to describe that simultaneous sense of surprise and 'but of course'-ness you get when an end-rhyme forms a punchline.

You kind of know what's coming because of the structure that comes before, the length of phrase, the parallelisms formed by the rhyme scheme, and in the case of parodies also from your knowledge of the original song - though the structures need to make sense in their own right too. But the way the thought is completed is not entirely predictable, because the role of the comedy writer is to take us to places we hadn't necessarily thought to go.

So when the cadence-point comes, the moment of the 'reveal', it seems obvious - but only in retrospect.

ABCD Midlands Conducting Day

Two of our delegates with our to-do list for the final session (of which more another day)Two of our delegates with our to-do list for the final session (of which more another day)If over the winter you had spotted the trailer for a Conductors' Day organised by the Association of British Choral Directors in January, you may have wondered why January came and went without my mentioning it and how it went. It was scheduled for January 19th, but if you live in the UK you may remember that the day before was the day we all woke up to several inches of snow.

It is one of our national sports to criticise ourselves roundly about how everyone just stops when we see a snowflake. But on the other hand, people were booked to come from quite a wide radius, and the chances of everyone making it there on time without difficulty were sufficiently slim to make it worth rescheduling. We ended up with two replacement dates for both the conducting and Sing Up streams, 16th Feb and 20th April, to try and accommodate as many delegates as possible.

Soapbox: Hands Off My Choir!

soapboxI recently received a letter from one of my city's fabulous arts organisations about a major musical event planned for 2014. I am going to have a grump in a minute, but it's not about the general wonderfulness of this organisation or the specific value of this project, which looks genuinely artistically exciting. The letter was inviting me to a meeting to learn how choirs from across the city could participate.

Now, maybe I am just feeling jaded because I live in a city that has a lot of great arts organisations, and so I get a lot of these invitations, but they are starting to irritate me, and I have taken a little time to work out why. On the face of it, what could be wrong with the chance to join up with other people with whom we have artistic interests in common to make a special event happen? Massed voice events are inherently exciting, and it's good for our sense of civic community to do stuff together.

But the thing is this: these are high-profile events, run by funded organisations, but effectively subsidised by the unfunded community groups upon which they rely for participants.

More on Choosing Songs

I have written several times on various aspects of choosing music to perform and/or to arrange. These have covered both technical and artistic criteria, and also given some ideas about process - not just what to look for but how to go about looking. I had an email conversation recently, though, with a chorus director who was looking to commission an arrangement that opened up an area right in the middle of the issues I have previously covered, but which I haven’t actually written about: which specific features should she advise her chorus members to look out for in a song that would mark it as suitable for a cappella arrangement?

Now, I used to dedicate a whole class to this question when I used to teach a course on Vocal Close Harmony at Birmingham Conservatoire. So my first instinct was just to dig out those notes and post ‘em up. But, four years on from when I last taught that course, and more years than that since I taught it in the format that included that session, I can find no trace of those notes. Deep sigh. So, we’ll have to do the thinking again from scratch.

Rote-Learning and Musicianship

Years ago, Jonathan and I took some ballroom dancing classes. It was fun it its way, but the classes weren't very good because we were simply taught a set sequence of steps for each dance without any guidance on how you would vary them in different circumstances. So we could never quick-step in a room smaller than the one we learned in, for instance, because we'd have hit the wall before we got to the turn.

I am reminded of this sometimes when working with amateur singers who have learned their music by a rote method such as learning tracks. They may have a strong and accurate grasp of the notes (the big benefit of this approach), but they lack the mental flexibility to hold the music in their heads and change their performance of it at the same time.

Adrenaline, Performance and the Speed of Thought

When I was taking my classes in stand-up comedy last year, every week a couple of participants would present their work-in-progress to the group in a show-and-tell session. One particular in-class performance taught me some useful things about the way that a state of arousal speeds up your thought processes.

The performer in question would say some of his prepared material, and then immediately start to elaborate on it - spontaneously adding extra ideas, answering back to himself - as he had these thoughts on the spot. All the spaces where the audience should have had time to respond by laughing were filled up with this extra layer of commentary that had emerged in the moment of performance.

The Dilts Pyramid as a Coaching Tool

diltsMy recent post about Technologies of the Self got me thinking about Robert Dilts' hierarchical model of 'neurological levels'. I mentioned this in passing in my post on neurolinguistic programming back in the autumn as something I've been thinking about blogging about for ages. Well, the time has come, because I think it offers quite a useful way to think about these 'technologies' from a practical perspective, rather than the theoretical context Foucault was working in.

First what this is. The Dilts pyramid is a model of personal change. It consists of a series of levels, each of which is constituted from, while also constraining, the one below. Hence, your capabilities define which behaviours you are able to engage in, but are also made up from your behaviours to date. And you only gain new capabilities by engaging in new behaviours.

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