March 2014

The Arranger's Super-Ego

I don't know quite why I started thinking in Freudian terms recently about arranging. I am sceptical in all kind of ways about Freud's theories - so many of them are so phallocentric, after all, which may feel normal for men, but just looks weird from a female perspective. But there are also ways in which he was quite humane and you can't accuse him of having not spent enough time thinking about this stuff.

Anyway, the experience that brought all this to mind was the stage of arranging I think of as 'combing' - getting all the lines lying smoothly so there aren't any tangles in the music to bump the listener, or knots in the lines to impede the singers. And I got to reflecting on how I know when an arrangement is finished.

On Artistic Freedom

On the same day I was having my revelations about feeling under the artistic thumb of over-interfering editors, a colleague/friend posted this on his Facebook timeline:

How can I put this without seeming unkind?. Putting aside my own paltry efforts in this field it was my misfortune to attend the worst piano recital today I've heard in 55 or so years of concert going; playing which would make Cherkassky and Pogorelich seem models of pianistic rectitude. Half a dozen or so (lost count) Chopin Nocturnes followed by Prokofiev's mighty 8th Sonata - a consummate display of pianistic and musical incompetence, the id always to the fore, the music merely a vehicle for a display of a grotesque psychotic disorder. Inner voices ('look how smart I am') which go nowhere except up cul-de-sacs, a musical narrative nowhere to be seen or understood; special 'effects' by the bucket load. And all accompanied by penetrating glances into the audience just to check how 'appreciative' we were of his extraordinary individuality.

It struck me that this is about as clear an argument as I’ve ever seen against the concept of ‘artistic freedom’.

The Dilemma of Drill

Here is a paradox for you. Both these statements are, as generalisations, true:

  1. People need to have sung something at least five times for it to get properly embedded in memory
  2. After the third time through it, people's attention quality drops of significantly

This is one of the central challenges of choral rehearsal. It is not just that, whilst we need repetition to learn, repetition degrades attention. It's that this waning starts before we have done enough to cement learning. So it's not just a matter of not repeating things too much - as this will mean we are not repeating them enough.

Do you see what I mean?

Soapbox: On Giving Feedback

soapboxI've written a couple of times over the years about asking for feedback - at what stage(s) it is most useful to do so, and how to manage one's own emotions so as to get the best value out of it. But it's also worth considering how to give feedback. This is something we work hard at in Magenta, with very clear protocols, because while (nearly) all feedback is meant well, it makes a huge difference how it is done.

Unless your intention is to deliver a fatal blow to somebody's confidence, bear the following points in mind.

The Conductor's Million-Dollar Question

When you get an email with the subject line 'quick question', you sometimes know that, while the question might be quick, finding the answer is actually your whole life's work. A recent email from a conductor I've been working with contained the following question:

I was thinking about what you were saying about using too much of my body. It was something I had been aware of, and I intend to work on it. But I was trying to work out how it came about. I think it’s a question of rehearsal technique – trying to convey the ‘shape’ of the song to the chorus without having to break it down. When I start a song, how is it best to teach the overall shape? Would you do it verbally? Break it down section by section? I think I was being lazy and trying, perhaps, to achieve too much too quickly by showing them rather than explaining it very well.

Now, some directors don't have this problem. They find standing still and beating time without flapping round like a tent in a hurricane comes naturally. For many of us, however, the challenge is how to keep our physical expressiveness under control.

Back with the Belles


On Wednesday I had a return visit to work with the Belles of Three Spires in Coventry. As with my previous work with them, it was a nice balance between work with the singers on musical detail and work with the directing team on aspects of conducting technique.

The first part of the evening was spent delving into the nitty-gritty of a song they had learned to that stage of basically-solid-but-not-yet-nuanced. The process was one of connecting the detail of arrangement choices to the narrative and emotional state of the song's protagonist - i.e. a process of characterisation. That makes it sound very grown-up. But it was a playful song, so that gave us the excuse to use lots of highly frivolous metaphors. You know you're going to have a laugh when the rhythmic flavour a song needs is 'giggle'.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I had a note recently from a conductor of a community band about his dilemma of whether he should continue working with them. I say 'note' - it was actually a lengthy reflection on the situation as it has developed over the decade he has been working with them. So I can only summarise here. But I think I can pull out the key points, and they are questions that face many musicians at various points in their lives, so worth mulling over together.

So the situation, in brief, is this. During his tenure, there are significant ways in which he feels he has succeeded: the band's performance standard is better, they are tackling more interesting and/or more ambitious music, and membership is up.

But he is worried that this process has also involved a degree of loss of some of the qualities that he valued on first acquaintance with the band: musical leadership and organisational management are more top-down these days, with the players seeming less in involved in things like suggesting music or finding gigs. He is worried that people are having less fun - there's less laughter in rehearsal, less buzz, less vibrancy.

Daring to Delegate, a Belated Postscript on Choir Size

One small bit of unfinished business from my first post on this subject last month is the question from the director I quoted of whether it is harder to get people to volunteer in a small chorus. It seems like a good question, and my initial hunch is: not necessarily, but there could be some kind of link between choir size and development of infrastructure.

So, first, why 'not necessarily'. Just because your choir is small doesn't mean that the people in it are any less intelligent or willing or up-for-it. Yes, there will be fewer people to do the jobs, but many of the jobs are commensurately smaller, so there is no logical reason why you shouldn't find enough people to get everything done. Indeed, quartets seem to manage all their logistics, music acquisition, coaching needs, publicity and finance with only four of them. Numbers aren't an inherent defining factor here.

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