August 2014

Soapbox: The Anti-Educational Ideology of ‘Talent’

I have written several times over the years about how ‘talent’ is a socially constructed narrative, and about the obsessive, dedicated work that goes into creating the skills that get labelled as ‘talent’. What I have been hitherto somewhat muted about is the damage that the mythology of talent does to our culture, and to individuals within it. This has come into focus for me in recent months as I have been writing about the phenomenon of the ‘non-singer’ as part of a book chapter for Oxford University Press.

The ‘non-singer’ is the inevitable by-product of our cultural construction of talent. We approach talent with a kind of magical thinking that sees the capacity for music (or indeed for all kinds of other specialist activities) as somehow both genetic and supernaturally bestowed upon particular, ‘gifted’ people, who are thereby set apart from normal mortals.

Adventures in Edinburgh


I am recently back from a trip to the Edinburgh Festivals, which offer what may be the richest, most varied and most genuinely international collection of common cold viruses in the world. Coming home with ‘festival flu’ is, apparently, all part of the experience. In five days we went to 15 events and 2 exhibitions; some were professional, some amateur; some charged for entry, others didn’t (interestingly, this is not quite the same division as pro/am); and covering comedy, music, theatre, visual arts and cultural commentary. I also came home with incipient artistic indigestion.

I’ll have some specific thoughts to tease out in response to some of these events (and/or in response to the peculiar juxtaposition of some of these events) in future posts. But in the first instance, I’d like to mull on some general points about the nature of the Fringe Festival in particular, and the effect it has on both the performers involved and the performances they produce.

Decision Fatigue and the Creative Process

There are only so many decisions you can make in one day. And when you have made too many, you lose your willpower. Rolf Dobelli reports on the psychological studies that demonstrated this very clearly, and also shows some of the consequences for real-life situations such as the criminal justice system. But, apart from recommending a rest and a snack to recover, he doesn’t really offer much help in dealing with decision fatigue.

This matters to everyone, but I’m particularly interested in how it impacts on the creative process. We often talk about creativity as if it is some kind of magical thing bestowed on us from above, not least because the source of our best ideas is only partly and intermittently susceptible to conversant self-awareness. But the actual activity of generating creative products is essentially one of making decisions. Global decisions (what to produce, for whom, of what size, with commitments to which genre(s)); artistic decisions (expressive register, characterisation, emotional shape); technical decisions (key, voicing, texture, chord choice). Think how much time you spend in planning, day-dreaming, and trial-and-error tinkering - all those are species of decision-making activity.

On Identity, Esteem and Pitch

And if you need to wear your vocal identity, you can buy the t-shirt hereAnd if you need to wear your vocal identity, you can buy the t-shirt hereI don’t write very often about the one-to-one mentoring work I do with individual directors. The things they need to work through are often rather too personal to share with the wider world, involving their own internal insecurities and the subtle interpersonal relationships of choir politics. But every so often, we come across something that is generalisable in such as way to be both of interest beyond their individual circumstances and - as a result - essentially anonymous.

One recent session covered, among other things, how to address an endemic problem with the tonal centre slipping. (See, you can’t identify the ensemble from that!) The director identified vocal production issues in the bass section as one factor here, and talked about the work she was already doing to lift and lighten the tone. But she also said something wonderfully perceptive about the psychological processes associated with the vocal issues.

Cheshire Chords, Melodies and Musical Shapes

CCC3On Thursday I finally made it up to Warrington to work with the Cheshire Chord Company. The visit had been scheduled for last month, but an accident on the M6 had on that occasion turned Birmingham to gridlock, and saw me spending an hour and 20 minutes to travel 8 miles and never even getting out of my home town. This time the M6 was really quite clear (by M6 standards, that is), and I was about the third person to arrive there!

One bright side to the postponement was that in the meantime the notes I had made on the chorus’s prize-winning performance at Llangollen International Eisteddfod had turned into a post on interpreting ballads. So, those chorus members who read my blog were already primed with some of the concepts we were going to be working with. There were just a handful of places where harmonic details or melodic shaping in the harmony parts suggested slight changes to the way they were delivering the melody.

Breath and Expression with the Belles

belles2Sunday took me over to Coventry to work with my friends the Belles of Three Spires. They are deep into their preparation for the Ladies Association of Barbershop Singers convention in the autumn, and the day was booked to give the opportunity for some detailed, in-depth work on their contest package.

One theme to emerge during the day was singing not just accurately, but with expressive purpose. The breath-points aren’t there just to breathe, for instance, they are there to articulate the moments in the story where the protagonist has the realisation that motivates the next line. The words tell us what is going on, but the harmony tells us how the protagonist feels about it. Most importantly for their ballad, the melody is the heart of the song.

Auditions, Effort Justification and Sunk Costs

I have mentioned before (here and here) Rolf Dobelli’s catalogue of common thinking errors in his book The Art of Thinking Clearly. Once again, I find myself getting distracted from his purpose of how to avoid the distorting in one’s own thinking onto ways in which how exploiting the error in others can be useful for choral purposes.

Effort Justification is a form of cognitive dissonance whereby we value something for the amount of effort it has required from us to achieve it rather than for the actual difference it makes to our lives. It also gets called the ‘IKEA effect’, after the way that we like furniture that we have assembled ourselves more than equivalent furniture bought ready-made. The more of ourselves we have invested in something, the more are committed to it, and this may be quite out of proportion to what we’d think of it seen from the outside.

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